The appointment of Lt General Bipin Rawat, the current vice-chief, as the next chief of army staff (CoAS) has generated a controversy about the gradual “politicization" of the Indian “fauj". The fact that seniority has been overlooked and two other officers senior to the CoAS designate (Lt Generals Praveen Bakshi and P.M. Hariz) have been bypassed is the trigger for the controversy. The public commentary is taking on a contour that is both undesirable and misleading in its binary reduction by way of seeking to either castigate the Narendra Modi government or exonerate it.

At the outset is the cardinal principle of robust democracies that the military remains subordinate—but not subservient or unctuous—to the prevailing political dispensation of the nation. The civil-military relationship is distinctive to each country and has a non-linear linkage to the strategic culture associated with the national ethos and the status accorded to the military in the lattice of governance.

In the Indian case, the Nehruvian orientation continues to hold sway and the Indian military remains outside the formal rules of business that determine the framework of governance. For those who may not be aware, in India, the defence secretary is entrusted with the onerous responsibility of national security and the three service chiefs are the “invisible men"—a phrase I borrow from Admiral Arun Prakash, a former invisible man!

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In this larger Indian context, this is not the first time that seniority has been set aside in the appointment of the CoAS. The guiding principle for the civilian political executive that makes the choice is “seniority cum merit", and hence it is misleading to assert that seniority as the sole criterion is cast in stone and inflexible.

In the last seven decades, the government overlooked seniority in choosing a CoAS twice. The first was the selection of General K.S. Thimayya in 1957. The second was that of General A.S. Vaidya by the Indira Gandhi government. The first choice was merit-driven and proved to be astute, while the use of the army against the Golden Temple in Amritsar, that had a series of disastrous consequences, occurred during the Vaidya tenure.

Let me hasten to add that this is not to suggest that the Rawat choice will follow the chequered Vaidya career path and these examples in themselves do not make a case for identifying seniority or merit alone as an inviolable metric for appointing a CoAS.

The government of the day has the prerogative to choose a CoAS from the slate provided to it and given the profile of the officers—in this case Lt Generals Bakshi, Hariz and Rawat—any among them could have been chosen. To that extent, the Modi team cannot be faulted for having picked Rawat.

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The presumption is that the government identified the best man for the onerous job of army chief and this will be reassuring to the common citizen who is not aware of the fine print of the selection process. But this is where the government could have done better to avoid the current controversy.

Whereas a lead-time of two-three months has been the norm over the last two decades in announcing the CoAS designate, this time it has been barely two weeks, and it has led to various kinds of speculation in the public domain. Avoidable.

Furthermore, the merit metric for the current choice remains opaque. While the elements need not necessarily be in the public domain, the government could have shared this with the leadership of the national political spectrum in a consensual manner, thereby removing any grounds for aspersions to be cast by the opposition.

Absent such an approach, a pernicious rationale has been advanced that Lt Gen. Rawat was chosen over his seniors for possessing greater LIC-IS (low-intensity conflict and internal security) operational experience. This formulation would suggest that the Indian Army is now prioritizing LIC-IS over its primary role—to deter any aggression against the country and to prevail over the adversary by the strength of its conventional land warfare capability. Short-sighted.

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And within the army, there has been simmering discontent, which I have personally heard, that the infantry and artillery are being given greater prominence and unfair advantage in selection to higher operational appointments over the armoured corps and the mechanized infantry. That Rawat is an infantry officer and that his peers who were bypassed are from the latter arms is being interpreted as illustration of this tilt within the army. Undesirable.

The civil-military relationship in a democracy is a delicate and synergistic dyad wherein rectitude and institutional integrity must be maintained and acknowledged by both sides within a hierarchy that obtains civilian political supremacy. But the objective is to work towards the intangible national security interest and the military as an institution must have that quiet confidence that the civilian dispensation is both supportive and empathetic to its ethos.

Alas, over the last decade, the office of the army chief in India has been the subject of many controversies that have had a corrosive effect. These include the unseemly date of birth controversy of a serving chief, a purported coup attempt, factional fights over “fixing" the succession of CoAS, sectarian allegations and more.

The political leadership of the day (the United Progressive Alliance) allowed these malignancies to fester and the National Democratic Alliance government was perceived as the political alternative that would clean the Augean stables. Alas, this has not happened and it appears that the military in India is being relegated to an institutional status below the bureaucracy and the police.

The Rawat controversy only adds to this perception. Given this background to the entire issue, one would have hoped that this would have been handled more sagaciously. To our collective dismay, it has not.

But now that the decision has been taken, the CoAS designate must be given the collective support that the institution warrants. Besmirching the individual must be rendered taboo.

C. Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi.

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