A better way of selecting the top brass – 2

Politicisation will limit politicisation

Two of the more thoughtful critiques of the Modi government’s decision to jettison the principle of seniority in appointing India’s next army chief appear in the Indian Express and Business Standard today. Sushant Singh and Ajai Shukla are among the most astute commentators on the subject so it is important to read their arguments with care.*

Sushant’s main argument is that the principle of seniority in choosing the chief must be replaced by an institutionalised due process, and not arbitrary selection by the political leadership. Ajai, though primarily concerned about the politicisation of the army, also criticises the rationale provided by the Modi government in the specific case of Gen Rawat.

A reasonable person will tend to agree with Sushant and Ajai, for after all, it is a good idea to ensure that the selection process is transparently objective. However, the reasonable view in this case might be both unsatisfactory and impractical. It might be a better to allow the political executive the complete discretion to pick from among the available pool of three star officers. If the Cabinet prefers non-military criteria like partisanship, ideology or ethnicity, so be it, as the Cabinet is accountable for outcomes. The lessons of 1962 are not lost on India’s politicians. As I wrote in my first post on this topic, if we can trust the prime minister with a nuclear button, we shouldn’t worry about a much lesser risk as the selection of army chief.

Won’t this politicise the army? Well, the trajectory is unlikely to be much different from what it is now. Moreover, even as Sushant, Ajai and I are concerned about the politicisation of the armed forces at politician-general level, we are also concerned about the politicisation within the army. As Ajai brings out in his article, factional politics among the branches of the army are intense and have ended up in the Supreme Court. It is naive to believe that this intramural politics has been untouched by the country’s partisan politics. I’ve covered this objection in my earlier post.

(*As the two are both friends and sparring partners, this blog refers to them by their first names, instead of formally by their honorifics and last names.)

A better way of selecting the top brass

Nothing is lost by abandoning the principle of seniority, but the armed forces need restructuring

Yesterday, the Modi government decided to supersede two general officers and appoint Lt Gen Bipin Rawat as the next chief of army staff. In a system where seniority has risen from a criterion to the criterion, and where “lines of succession” are drawn in a manner to mirror royal succession in monarchies, the move has shocked many. After all, the last time such a thing happened was in 1981 when the Indira Gandhi government appointed Gen A S Vaidya over Gen S K Sinha’s head.

Here’s the thing: the Modi government has done well to break a norm that had so become an entitlement that it had begun damaging the incentive structures of the the military leadership. The sordid saga of Gen V K Singh five years ago revealed that the army’s leadership was spending undue energy on manipulating promotions and appointments to ensure desired lines of succession. Any organisation whose leadership is engaged in such machinations is likely to suffer loss of professionalism. By elevating seniority to a sacrosanct principle, we might well have depoliticised appointments at the level of the political leaders picking the military leadership. However, it does not mean we have depoliticised appointments within the military establishment. Because of secrecy and respect that the armed forces enjoy, the ‘politics’ within the armed forces is generally invisible to the public. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Just go back and look at the reports that emerged five years ago during the Gen V K Singh’s controversy.

If the Indian armed forces had the luxury of being a showpiece, where they did more ceremonial parades than combat, it might have been acceptable to go by seniority. But India’s armed forces have been fighting wars, proxy wars and insurgencies for ever, and the future presents ever greater risks. In such a context, it is downright absurd to argue the the senior-most officer should become the commander. Furthermore, it is downright absurd to accept that the service chiefs should be both excellent commanders and excellent staff officers: a great military leader need not necessarily be the best military manager. To roll the two roles into the same office is to get a little bit of both, and the best of neither. Jettisoning the primacy of seniority is the first step: the Modi government must use the opportunity to implement structural reforms to India’s military structure. (It’s clear what such reform should entail: see this article)

There are two important objections to non-seniority based appointments. First, that it would upset the army’s internal appointments and promotions structure. Second, that it would allow the political leadership to appoint military leaders based on partisan, ideological, religious, caste or other criteria unrelated to military merit. Let’s consider each of them in turn.

Yes, superseding officers will cause genuine heartburn, embarrassment and grievances among those adversely affected by the move. The retirement or resignation of those who have been passed over for promotion count as a loss to India’s military capital. That, however, is the price we must pay for a competitive military establishment. Much of this cost is one off, representing what behavioural economists call the “endowment effect”. Because officers expect to be promoted on the basis of seniority, they feel what is rightfully theirs has been taken away. If, from now on, officers no longer expect the seniority norm to hold, they will feel less cheated. That said, it is incumbent on the Ministry of Defence and the services headquarters to ensure that the superseded officers are treated with respect and decorum; and if they have years of service left, are re-employed in government positions commensurate with their seniority.

The second objection is more serious: what is to stop the political leadership from appointing military chiefs on dubious, non-military criteria? Well, for one, it is not as if lobbying on such grounds has not been taking place. However, the argument that the prime minister cannot be trusted to properly appoint a service chief sounds pretty unserious when the office of the prime minister has everything from the nuclear button to the validity of all legal tender in his hand. If the citizens of India vote in a government in a constitutional manner, and the ruling party constitutionally appoints the prime minister, who selects his cabinet, then that is that.

Now it is not as if the Cabinet can appoint an army chief without being bound by any constraints: they will be limited to a small number of officers to choose from, and any ideological, partisan or communal preference will be constrained by the fact that the armed forces are engaged in active duty. No Cabinet would want to lose battles or wars, or found wanting in the face of external threats. Parliament must do its job and keep the government in tether: so rather than defend the principle of seniority, concerned citizens must demand the amendment of the anti-defection law that has converted MPs into robots under the control of the party leaders.

The Modi government would do well to follow up its departure from orthodoxy with a sincere commitment to restructure the armed forces. Early in his tenure, PM Modi was reluctant to risk this reform. He should not shy away from it now. The K Subrahmanyam report was almost two decades ago; there have been a few subsequent initiatives to study the matter further. It’s well past decision time.

Tailpiece: My comments on an NDTV show on this subject in February 2012.

Update: Read the second post on this topic here.

ISI’s change of course and other stories

Pakistan’s military-jihadi complex will need more then the prospect of diplomatic isolation to change its policies.

Cyril Almeida’s report reads too good to be true.

Facing international isolation—read lack of support from the United States and even China—Pakistan’s civilian leaders confronted the ISI chiefand got him to permit action against the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed, and their respective leaders. Not only did they say this to the general’s face, but even more surprisingly, the general tacitly consented to law enforcement action against the groups. That’s not all, he agreed to visit every province, meet the local political, military and ISI leaders there, and persuade them to change course.

The appropriate reaction to this report is: yes, and teenage hippos rollerblade.

Yet, the fact that such a report made it to the press is interesting. Taken at face value, it does suggest that the strategy of persuading Pakistan’s supporters might be working. [I have argued for this before, on Yahoo! and WSJ]

However, it would be credulous to believe that the Pakistani military establishment has decided to change course merely on account of the prospect of international diplomatic isolation. Rawalpindi & Islamabad are masters are exploiting fissures in the world order to survive and promote their interests, and at a time when there are so many growing fissures in the international system, they shouldn’t find it hard to do so. The isolation explanation, by itself, is not convincing enough.

What is more likely is that the military establishment is playing for time ahead of a leadership transition as Gen Raheel Sharif retires next month. All his potential successors need all potential allies within the political system, and at this time, it is unlikely that any of them would want to antagonise their nominal political leaders. Gen Raheel himself might calculate that he needs friends to ensure that he enjoys his retired life.

Ergo, Mr Almeida’s report should not rouse great hopes in India. In any case, what matters are results on the ground; not official statements or unofficials leaks to the media. Worse, if the Pakistani army wishes to retalitate to an Indian surgical strike (that it says did not happen) with a similar strike of its own, for the sake of pyschological parity, then a report like this is just the kind of thing to leak.

Ad hoc defence

In my Business Standard column today I argue that structural reform of the armed forces is the unfinished business of Kargil:

It may appear that the country has been lucky to have escaped without too much damage for another 14 years. But the failure to restructure our armed forces in line with contemporary needs will impose strategic costs beyond just delays and scandals. The current structure, divided as it is between the army, navy and air force (and within their constituent arms), is unable to holistically conceptualise India’s strategic environment.

Take, for instance, the Cabinet’s approval for a new mountain strike corps to handle the Chinese threat along the unresolved boundary. It involves an army formation of 45,000 soldiers and a cost of Rs 62,000 crore over 2012-17, tasked with mounting an offensive in Tibet in the event of a Chinese attack. This move was widely hailed as a robust Indian response to China’s aggressive actions along the boundary and its steadfast refusal to move towards a settlement. Few asked where the money and the soldiers are going to come from. As my colleague Rohan Joshi notes, the army is already short of 10,000 officers and 30,000 soldiers. With slower economic growth, higher social expenditure and looming deficits, how does the government plan to finance this expansion?

The bigger question, though, is not the financial cost but the opportunity cost. Is an army strike corps India’s best response to the strategic threat from China?

It is possible to argue that by choosing an army strike corps, New Delhi has played right into China’s hands. Beijing has, by inexpensively raising tensions along the Himalayan boundary, managed to induce New Delhi to invest in an expensive military asset that is unlikely to be used. Nuclear deterrence makes a direct military conflict between the two countries unlikely; and a large-scale conflict necessitating the use of corps-level formations is even more unlikely.

Meanwhile, the geostrategic contest of our times is being played out in the oceans. The only regional force that can challenge the Chinese navy’s quest to dominate the Indo-Pacific waters is the Indian navy. And guess what? India has Rs 62,000 crore less to spend on the naval expansion of the kind that would have countered China’s maritime power.

Perhaps the decision to invest in a strike corps is the better one, though this columnist disagrees. Yet, absent the long-pending restructuring of the armed forces, we can never say that the big trade-offs were adequately weighed.

Fourteen years after Kargil, the country certainly cannot afford such ad hoc functioning. [Business Standard]

Coincidentally, another op-ed in another newspaper by one of India’s foremost thinkers on strategic affairs takes up this argument in greater detail. Admiral Raja Menon packs quite a punch in the pages of The Hindu when he argues that instead of a mountain strike corps, a “a flotilla of nuclear submarines and a three carrier air group” makes more sense:

Most of all, we appear not to have assessed the Chinese weakness and strengths. Their strength is the huge logistic network that they have built up in Tibet. By creating a one axis strike corps, we have played into their strengths. The Chinese weakness lies in the Indian Ocean, a fact that even Beijing will readily concede. The clash between their political system and economic prosperity requires resources and, increasingly, the Chinese resource pool is Africa, which generates massive sea lines of communication (SLOC) through the Indian Ocean. Today, they are merely SLOCs; tomorrow they will be the Chinese Jugular. Beijing’s paranoia about the Indian Ocean is therefore understandable but the threat according to its strategic commentators comes only from the U.S. Sixty thousand crore spent on strengthening the Indian Navy’s SLOC interdiction capability would have given us a stranglehold on the Chinese routes through the Indian Ocean. The Himalayan border, the entire border, could have been held hostage by our strength in the Indian Ocean with an investment of Rs.60,000 crore. [The Hindu]

While I am not a fan of aircraft carriers, I am of the same opinion as Admiral Menon on the need to invest in naval and expeditionary assets. The absence of a higher defence structure that can look at strategy in a comprehensive manner—including the nuclear dimension—is causing India to engage in linearism, incrementalism and ad hocism.

The misleading presumption of a coup

We lose the middle when we debate the extremes

Here’s an excerpt from a report in The Hindu filed by its New Delhi bureau.

Precisely why the government ought to have been alarmed by the presence of two additional formations on New Delhi’s outskirts, when tens of thousands of soldiers are stationed in and around the city, also remains unclear.

Intelligence sources told The Hindu that the political apprehensions might have emanated from assessments given to the government as its conflict with the Army Chief on the age issue escalated in early January. Tens of thousands of soldiers were arriving in Delhi for the Republic Day parade, even as Gen. Singh was preparing to move the Supreme Court, and the Intelligence Bureau feared the inflamed public discourse on his date of birth might spark an embarrassing incident.

The movement of the two units was noted with concern in this context, a senior Intelligence Bureau official admitted to The Hindu, but insisted that “at no stage was the possibility of a coup, or any attempt to overawe the government, ever discussed. We worried about indiscipline, or a show of support by some elements — and it’s our job to consider those possibilities.”

Though the Intelligence Bureau routinely monitors troop movements in sensitive areas across India, the sources said, it had not been conducting surveillance operations seeking signs of threatening military movements. It was only after the 50 Brigade or 33 Armoured Division’s detachments were noticed on the capital’s outskirts that the government was notified of their presence. [The Hindu]

In yesterday’s blog post and tweets, I had warned that the presumption that the Indian Express report only indicated a coup would close our minds to other “in-between” possibilities.

Note what the senior IB official says—it was not a coup they feared, but rather ‘indiscipline or a show of support by some elements.’ Street protests have become increasing common over the last few years not least because the UPA government has succumbed to political negotiations conducted by such means. As the officer said, it’s the Intelligence Bureau’s job to consider those possibilities. The atmosphere of mistrust would have played on those risk assessments and set off the chain of events.

What is of public interest, then, is what caused civil-military trust to break down? What mistakes did the civilian establishment make in the days and hours leading up to January 16/17? What mistakes did the army make? These questions need to be examined dispassionately in order for us to be able to attempt to restore that trust. [Troop movements of the curious kind]

Troop movements of the curious kind

Understanding the unusual movement of two army units towards New Delhi

The byline of the report shows its seriousness. It could not have been filed without the approval of the highest levels of the Indian government. It is deeply worrisome. In January 2012, almost 60 years after the Indian republic was established, some people in the government were concerned about a military c-, well, curiosity.

The report presents a set of facts saying “(it) is too early to answer all the ‘hows, whys and the what-nexts’ of this.” It is not even clear if all the relevant facts are out in the open. Even so, at this time, what should we make of these disturbing revelations?

The two most important questions at this time are the following. First, why were the two military formations moved in an ostensibly unusual manner? Second, why did the government permit this report to be published at all, and why now?

The first question has three broad explanations. The most innocent is that this was a tragedy of errors brought about due to the atmosphere of mistrust between the army chief and civilian government officials. Triggered by the timing—General V K Singh’s petition to the Supreme Court—the civilian establishment panicked and overreacted to the unusual but unthreatening events. A crucial point is the allegation that the army headquarters did not notify the defence ministry of the movements of the two units towards New Delhi, which is the required protocol. Army commanders do not need authorisation to move troops on exercises, but need to notify the ministry when the geography of the National Capital Region is involved.

A less innocent explanation is that the movement of units was deliberate designed to unsettle the civilian establishment and nothing more. The third, and the least palatable explanation is that some people in the army thought they could pull off a political stunt, much like the dharnas, gheraos and public protests that you see in the capital on a daily basis. (No, there is no fourth explanation, this is India.)

While we do not know if any of these reflect what actually happened, the odds are heavily stacked in favour of the innocent explanation. That’s already cause for deep concern. It remains to be seen if the defence ministry will investigate the unusual troop movements further. Ideally, it ought to. At this time, however, it is unclear if this can take place without exacerbating the atmosphere of mistrust that has been created.

The second question is this: why is it that the government allowed this report to be published? On a matter as sensitive as this, it is highly likely that the Indian Express would have accepted a request not to publish such a report if the government would have made it. So why wasn’t such a request made? The honourable reason is that it is just as well that the public is kept informed of the slightest risks to our democratic setup. The political reason might be to get back at General V K Singh.

Again, we do not know the answer to this question either. What we do know is that the situation has been allowed to reach to such a point that the banana flavour is palpable. Things have gone far enough. We need a new Defence Minister. Considering what might come next under this government, it is just as well that he stays on.


Update: Framing the debate

Since this post was published earlier this morning public discourse has gravitated around two issues: on the motives and propriety of the Indian Express in publishing this story and on whether or not a military coup was attempted.

Let’s get the first out of the way—unpalatable, unsavoury and unbelievable as it may well be, the newspaper acted in the public interest by publishing it. You might quibble about the size of the headline or the sensationalisation, but unless you think bad news and potential risks ought to be hidden from public view, it is hard to justify an argument against its publishing. (Full disclosure: I occasionally write op-eds for the paper, including one last week on restructuring the armed forces)

Next, while the article alleges that the army undertook unusual movements without notifying—and notification is different from authorization, a point that many commentators have missed—the defence ministry as it was required to, it does not suggest a military coup. This is a very important distinction. Presuming that a coup could be the only motive behind the alleged mobilisation precludes us from considering other possibilities.

The report is not only about what the army did or didn’t do. It is also about what the civilian establishment did. It should be quite easy to establish whether a terror alert was sounded in New Delhi on January 16-17th, and whether the defence secretary flew back from Malaysia to meet the DGMO and send the troops back. The Indian Express cannot be fabricating these easily verifiable facts. If indeed these events occurred, then the objective reality is that of severe mistrust between the uniformed and civilian leadership in the defence ministry that had serious consequences on the ground.

What is of public interest, then, is what caused civil-military trust to break down? What mistakes did the civilian establishment make in the days and hours leading up to January 16/17? What mistakes did the army make? These questions need to be examined dispassionately in order for us to be able to attempt to restore that trust.

The defence minister dismissed the report as baseless. The prime minister uttered two brief non-committal sentences, warning us of “alarmist reports which should not be taken on its face value” and reminding us of the obligation to “do nothing to lower its dignity and respect in the public”. This is no trifling matter. It behoves on the UPA government and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to spell out—both in parliament and in public—what it intends to do to restore trust between the armed forces, the civilian establishment and the people of India.

Time to restructure the Indian armed forces

The controversies around the army chief are symptoms of a deeper malaise

(This is the unedited draft of today’s op-ed in Indian Express)

Like the metaphorical iceberg, what is visible to us in the ongoing controversy involving the army chief and the defence ministry is just the small fraction floating above the line. Much of the public debate has been occupied by trivial issues like his date of birth or scandalous matters like corruption in defence procurement. While the service tenure of an individual officer is of little relevance to national security, corruption among the top brass most certainly is.

What lies below the line is bigger, more dangerous and invisible to the naked eye: the controversies triggered by General V K Singh are manifestations of an organisational structure and culture that is in dire need for change.

Actually, it has been in dire need for change for decades. Ten years ago, the Vajpayee government constituted a committee of experts to study India’s war effort in Kargil. That committee, chaired by the late K Subrahmanyam noted that “an objective assessment of the last 52 years will show that the country is lucky to have scraped through various national security threats without too much damage, except in 1962. The country can no longer afford such an ad hoc functioning.” It proposed a slew of important reforms, few of which have been implemented in spirit. The UPA government instituted another committee under Naresh Chandra last year which is in final stages of submitted its report. We have all the reports. We just don’t have the reforms.

India is facing the strategic environment of the twenty-first century with its armed forces structured largely as they were during the Second World War. The reduced likelihood of a big conventional war—thanks to nuclear deterrence—means that our complacency in not restructuring the armed forces is unlikely to punished in the battlefields that easily. What is more likely is that the outdated structure will eat our armed forces inside out, through corruption, cronyism, indiscipline and inefficiency. Ossified structures seldom reward initiative, risk taking and integrity.

Unfortunately, these have begun affecting the Indian armed forces. Quotas in all but names have emerged for everything from gallantry awards to promotions. While in principle the government can appoint the best man for the job, in practice it is seniority that determines who becomes the army chief. Lower down the hierarchy informal rules determine the speed at which officers in various combat arms are promoted. Not even the comptroller and auditor general can fathom the notional loss to the nation in terms of wasted talent and human capital. What is fathomable is that despite setting aside a defence budget to make India the world’s biggest arms importer, the army chief has complained of shortages in the most basic of warfighting material.

We cannot allow this to go on. We must change the way our armed forces are structured. We must change how our service personnel are trained, equipped and promoted. We must change now.

Such a change can only come from the top — it must be driven by the Union Cabinet with the Prime Minister’s imprimatur. The current moment opens a window of opportunity to carry out transformational change. The doubts and uncertainties created among the higher levels of the army due to the question of General V K Singh’s birth date cannot be left unresolved. There is a risk that it will create deep divisions within the echelons of the army, especially if the losers in this round of the army’s ‘office politics’ feel victimised. Shaking up the organisation is a one good way to put it in order.

As K Subrahmanyam had consistently argued, India needs a Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff and theatre commanders. We should adapt the US model to our specific context. Instead of the army, navy and air force operating separately in their own independent commands, we should reorganized them into five theatre commands (Northern, Western, Southern, Eastern and Expeditionary). Brigadier-equivalents must serve outside their respective services in order to qualify for command positions in the combined joint commands.

The roles of military advisors, service chiefs and theatre commanders must be separated. This allows us to balance seniority, experience and talent by placing the right person in the right job.

We also need to rebalance the civil-military relationship. The chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, as the principal military advisor to the government, must report directly to the Prime Minister and carry ex-officio cabinet rank. This will ensure that the chief executive has direct access to military advice without upsetting civilian supremacy over the armed forces.

Obviously, restructuring the armed forces is not a miracle cure to the problems that plague our defence policy. However, it is the first step. The rest will follow. In the coming months, everyone involved will find it tempting to rejig the procurement process some more, order a few enquiries, appoint another high-level commission and set aside more money for flashy new equipment. That would exactly the kind of ad hoc functioning that the Kargil Review Committee warned that the country can no longer afford. Not least because the armed forces are at great risk of losing in the battleground of public trust.

Copyright © 2012. Indian Express. All Rights Reserved

What to debate when you are debating in the dark

The General’s birthday lawsuit is a red herring

Much is being said and written, often with great passion, about the controversy over General V K Singh’s age. [See Mint’s editorial, Manoj Joshi’s article in Mail Today and this report in the New York Times for a background.]

That it has taken the Indian Republic into hitherto uncharted territory is not in doubt. Without real political leadership and competent management of the behemoth called government, it is likely that matters will end up in court. That has happened. If the Supreme Court decides on the issue (or whatever it decides, including referring it to the Armed Forces Tribunal), a legal precedent would be set. Now, both unwritten norms and legal precedents can be decorous and inexpensive ways for organisations to function. But the transition from norms to legal precedents often gets complicated, ugly and dirty. It is a test for the Indian system, and on the face of it, there is no reason to believe that it will fail.

On the public debate itself, the fact is that very little about what happens behind the closed walls of the army headquarters and the defence ministry is in the public domain. Few people outside the defence establishment, and some of those within, know what the real motivations of the various parties involved are. The phrase “those who know, won’t talk; and those who talk don’t know”, is relevant to this case. So we end up with gossip, speculative commentary or an opportunity for people to unleash their own biases and take potshots at their favourite targets.

Does this information asymmetry mean we don’t debate the matter at all? Far from it. It merely means that the issue must be framed in a manner so as to hold to account those in government who ought to know the facts and are accountable to us. In this case, the Defence Minister. What was A K Antony doing all this while and why? That is the governance issue here. The army chief’s age is itself an procedural, administrative or legal matter, but for purposes of overall governance, it is a red herring. The incompetence, inability or unwillingness of the Defence Minister and the Cabinet Committee on Security, and through collective responsibility—the Prime Minister and his Cabinet—to handle this matter before it blew up is the question that we both can and should debate.

Can a government that manages an administrative matter in so cavalier a manner be trusted to manage matters relating to national defence any more effectively?

The relative status of military officers in India

How the decline can be reversed
In an interview in May 2008, the late K Subrahmanyam was scathing in his indictment of how the armed forces have devalued their own status. Reforming the organizational structures and processes so that a service officer’s “job size” is comparable to that of his civilian counterpart is an important, and “grossly overlooked” aspect of military modernisation.

This raises another point. A civil service recruit becomes a district magistrate in six years and is in charge of a district of a million people but an army recruit gets independent charge only after 18 years of service. Why should it take 18 years for an army officer to progress to that level? During the second world war, a man with five years experience was leading a battalion into battle. With eight years of experience, one would command a brigade. This anomaly has been grossly overlooked. [Pragati May 2008, PDF]