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.

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.

Don’t hype the iMuj

The Indian Mujahideen might be hiding their weakness

After a long polemic on the Kashmir issue a letter claiming to be from the Indian Mujahideen gets to the point on the fourth of the five pages. It dedicates today’s shooting of a tourist bus outside Delhi’s Jama Masjid to what it calls the “martyrs…who proudly laid down their lives valiantly fighting…the Delhi police on this day.” They refer to the two terrorist suspects killed by Delhi Police at Batla House two years ago. The letter also refers to current events like the developments over the German Bakery case in Maharashtra and communal disturbances in Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh.

Into this long list of grand grievances is a relatively quotidian one—“teenaged Salman was brutally beaten up repeatedly by the Delhi Police and was hospitalized.” The letter says that today’s attack is their “unique reply to this and we are always on our toes for a Tit-for-Tat response”.

The inclusion of the beating up of a teenager by Delhi Police in a list which has complaints of an altogether different level suggests that the issue was close to the hearts of the perpetrators. Despite its grandiose claims, the Jama Masjid shooting might have been carried out by people with very local grievances who nevertheless are plugged into the overall narrative of victimhood.

So too the reference to the Batla House shootout. Moreover, the fact that the letter says that the suspects at Batla House died while “valiantly fighting” the Delhi Police undermines the claims of those who argue that the dead were innocent, because innocent victims seldom engage in valiant gunfights with policemen.

The nature of today’s attack—essentially a drive-by shooting with pistols—is not quite the same as the synchronous bombings that the Indian Mujahideen have carried out in the past. It also occurs after a longish lull. It might be that the operational tempo and capacity of the Indian Mujahideen has weakened. The inclusion of a minor local grievance might indicate an inability to find more professional, committed operatives. [Update: There are reports of a botched car bomb as well, strengthening the above argument]

In other words, the iMuj might be masking their weakness with bombast and the perceptions of vulnerability relating to the next month’s Commonwealth Games. Few would have taken such a shooting seriously if it were not for the Games. Which is why even as the law enforcement and intelligence agencies go about their work tracking the perpetrators down, it is important for the media to refrain from hyping up the Indian Mujahideen threat.

Heck, after all, these are people who threaten India with…seepage. The letter is titled “As we bleed, so will you seep”.