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    OpinionsWhy Bipin Rawat's selection as Army Chief is not wrong?

    Why Bipin Rawat’s selection as Army Chief is not wrong?


    Why Bipin Rawat's selection as Army Chief is not wrong

    Dipankar Banerjee

    The second-worst criterion of selecting the head of a nation's military is seniority. The worst form is probably nepotism. Or, in a country where the political class seldom contributes to the nation's military leadership, it may also be political leanings. Fortunately, in we have been spared the latter. Instead, by tradition, we have inflicted on ourselves the second-worst option.

    Historical examples proving this point are galore. Napoleon promoted his commander in Spain, Michel Ney, to Marshal of France when he was only 32 years old. When questioned why he had promoted somebody so young, he is reported to have asked whether he should have promoted the donkey that had served the Imperial Army for 20 years!


    In War I, Germany's war plans, developed by Alfred von Schlieffen, envisaged keeping the central pivot deliberately weak and strengthening instead the right wing that would swing rapidly through Belgium and encircle Paris.

    Schlieffen had pleaded to “keep the right flank strong”. Helmut Von Moltke Jr was selected the supreme commander based more on the reputation of his illustrious uncle of the same name and who had won great victories for Germany in 1870. But he lacked the same strength of character.

    At a critical juncture in the war, he denuded the right flank, which then fell short of Paris and a stalemate ensued, determining the future of the world.

    The top military leadership in India, even more than in many other countries, plays a vital role in decision-making.

    In the present system, the military commander's advice and leadership can often be the critical input determining success or failure. The single-most important reason for victory in the 1971 War in Bangladesh was Sam Maneckshaw's determination to resist political pressure and intervene militarily in March 1971.

    Instead he was determined to wait till preparations and the timing were right. It took six months. Meanwhile the nation under Indira Gandhi prepared brilliantly in setting the international stage. It is doubtful whether anybody other than the Field Marshal would have been able to stand his ground under intense political pressure at the time.

    Questionable choices have been made in the past in India regarding the top Army leadership. Lt-Gen SPP Thorat, a distinguished commander who served in Korea with distinction in the UN-sponsored NNRC, was bypassed in favour of General PN Thapar. Thorat had proposed a plan for the of the north against China that did not suit the political leadership.

    Instead Thapar proved utterly ineffectual and surrendered the leadership of the Army to Lt Gen BM Kaul, whose political connections overrode his competence as a General and led to the worst military defeat in modern India.


    Lt Gen PS Bhagat, who won the Victoria Cross in World War II, “for the longest recorded feat of sheer cold courage”, demining a critical road axis in Africa and was immensely popular, was bypassed for the chief's post. Many years later, Lt Gen SK Sinha, an outstanding General by every count and the senior-most, was superseded for the top post.

    His bold and critical analyses of civil official control over the Army and his forthright manner of articulation were not acceptable to either the bureaucracy or the Prime Minister. It is possible that Mrs Gandhi paid for this decision with her life.

    It is very unlikely that Sinha would have advised in favour of the botched Golden Temple operation in 1984, which was planned by the intelligence organisations and poorly executed by an Army unprepared for the task.

    It is unfortunately true that no two individuals share the same qualities of head and heart and professional competence that make for the best leadership of a challenging organisation. It is a legitimate need of any organisation to have the best possible leadership if it is to progress and prosper.

    Every large multinational, industrial or commercial organisation knows this and invests millions of dollars in selecting the right person. None of them would ever consider seniority as a relevant factor. It is only in India, where merit in its true sense is seldom a factor for any selection, that this principle is followed.


    It is a wrong assumption that just by clicking the right slots one would find equal competence among seven or eight officers who are in the top rung. A deliberate decision needs to be made to select the best person from among this group.

    Without doubt it is the sole responsibility of the nation's political leadership to select the best person to head the military and this responsibility cannot be shirked by relying on seniority or the date of birth of candidates.

    Yet, it is equally true that this process of assessment and selection too needs to be refined. The current procedure may do well with a relook. A procedure involving transparent consultations among responsible and competent people in authority may strengthen this process.

    Meanwhile the present government deserves our strongest support for making a conscious decision to consider merit as the most important factor for selection to top posts in the government and particularly in the Army.

    The writer is a retired Army officer and a member of the Board of Governors at Forum for Strategic Initiatives.

    The Northlines is an independent source on the Web for news, facts and figures relating to Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and its neighbourhood.

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