By Manoj Joshi
The Indian Government was well within its rights to appoint Lt Gen Bipin Rawat as the Chief of Army Staff.
Even in Pakistan, where the army actually runs the show, the prerogative of appointing the chief rests in the hands of the civilian government. This is how it should be. But the appointment left a bad taste in the mouths of many after the remarks of Lt Gen Pravin Bakshi surfaced.
Taken in conjunction with the controversies that rocked the nation when General VK Singh was Army chief, they are not a good sign for the health of one of the world’s largest armies.
This should not be seen as a critique of General Rawat; he does not lack anything in comparison to those who he superseded.
But the remarks of Lt Gen Praveen Bakshi, the Eastern Army commander who was superseded, are somewhat shocking.
According to media reports, in a New Year video broadcast to the 3,00,000 men in his command, Bakshi said ‘there has been a malicious campaign to smear my name, a very deeply rooted conspiracy’ carried out against him by ‘men in the shadows.’
According to reports, in recent months, anonymous complaints were filed to the defence minister against the General, alleging irregularities in procurements in his command.
These were investigated by the Controller General of Defence Accounts and found to be untrue. The general said he was not resigning so that he could expose these shadow men who, as his remarks implied were from within his own command.
The country has had to face controversy over Army chiefs in the past decade and some have found themselves in deep controversy.
Outgoing chief Dalbir Singh had a discipline and vigilance ban slapped on him by General VK Singh, allegedly aimed at preventing from becoming the chief. Likewise, Singh, now a minister in the current government, sought to extend his tenure so as to allegedly prevent Bikram Singh from becoming the chief.
A lot of this came out in the open last August, when Dalbir Singh, the then serving chief formally accused his predecessor General VK Singh of trying to stall his promotion ‘with mala fide intent.’ In an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court, he said that as chief, V K Singh tried to ‘victimise him’ with the aim of ‘denying promotion.’
Behind these charges lay an even murkier story relating to the deaths of three informants allegedly by military intelligence officials, one of whom was reportedly close to another former chief JJ Singh who it has been alleged wanted to manipulate the line of succession to deny VK Singh his turn to be chief.
The controversies over the appointment of the chiefs are only the tip of the iceberg of grouses, complaints and grievances that afflict the military. The government has created Armed Forces Tribunals to take away the pressure of promotion-related complaints from the courts and provide a channel to air grievances.
But this does not take away the fact that unfortunately, a culture of malice, deliberate manipulation of rules and regulations to promote favourites and undermine the chances of others exists. You can create systems and rules and grievance redressal processes, but what is needed is a restoration of the ethical culture which the forces used to be so proud of.
The politicians have, by and large, stayed away from the issues relating to promotion after the disaster of the 1962 war.
But the same cannot be said of the MOD bureaucracy or the national security bureaucracy who believe that they are the true custodians of national interest and can and do get involved.
In every system, democratic or otherwise, politicians have the discretion of making high-level appointments.
This is necessary to underline the principle of civil control of the military. In the Indian system, there is a tendency to misuse discretion and deep selection, which is actually desirable.
It is for this reason that previous governments decided to appoint the senior-most officer as the COAS unless there was something clearly negative against him. In the case of Bakshi and Lt Gen P M Hariz, there was nothing in their career that required them to be superseded.
The government of the day must have the ability to make a choice. However, it would be helpful if that choice was made transparently and the government does not take recourse to false claims, as they did by saying Gen Rawat was chosen because of his counter-insurgency experience. CI is a subsidiary part of the Army’s job. Its real job is to fight external enemies.
Perceptions matter a great deal in managing men. For this reason, the government must not only be just, but appear to be so.
This artice was first published in DailyMail