As straws in the wind go, the moving in September this year of Lieutenant General Bipin Rawat, GOC-in-C, Southern Command, as Vice Chief pointed to his promotion as the next COAS after Dalbir Singh Suhag. The stated reasons for ignoring seniority and bypassing Lt Gen Praveen Bakshi, GOC-in-C, Eastern Command, a post that has been the stepping stone for the last three army chiefs, and in favour of Rawat are plausible enough. Insurgency and China being the two main threats the country faces, having a COAS who is intimate with the operational issues confronting the army in J&K and on the LAC (Line of Actual Control) and dealing with the Tibetan plateau-entrenched PLA (People’s Liberation Army) as the sharp end of the Chinese wedge advancing southwards in the subcontinent, is useful.
Assuming the talk that Bakshi is to be nominated as the first four star Chief of Defence Staff is a lot of fluff to blunt the criticism attending on Rawat’s selection, his (Bakshi’s) being sidelined along with the third COAS candidate on the seniority list, P. Mohammad Hariz, respectively of the armoured corps and mechanized infantry, perhaps, signals the Indian government’s realistic assessment that these instruments of mobile warfare constituting the three “strike corps” are too terrain specific (desert and plains) to be militarily useful and, therefore, increasingly passe, and the officers promoted from these formations too limited in their operational skills and ambit to provide the sort of well-rounded qualities that are necessary in army chief.
As I have argued for over two decades now, because nuclear weapons and an ambiguous N-tripwire have made the kind of rolling tank-on-tank warfare in vast, relatively vacant, spaces of the kind last seen in the 1965 War impossible effectively to prosecute, it is time to rationalize the army force structure. This would require in the main, the consolidation of the three strike corps into a single composite corps and a number of independent armoured brigades, and the shifting of the redundant manpower and materiel to forming three full offensive mountain corps desperately needed to vigorously handle China.
The question, however, is if the Modi government was determined on discarding the seniority principle as a means of making the selection process less predictable and those in the running less timid because too afraid to make mistakes and risk losing out, was Rawat the best choice? I know of an IAF chief who, owing to his date of birth and date of service entry knew as a Squadron Leader boasted he would occupy the top post and took care, during the rest of his career, never to make any tough decisions, and it paid off.
All appointments as Armed Services’ chiefs of staff are political. In a democratic setup moreover such appointments reaffirm the primacy of the political authority which picks and chooses from among a slate of equally qualified three star rank officers. Because it is a political decision, the government of the day is free to alight on any metric for selection that it chooses. In the Indian milieu, the precedent of emphasizing seniority was established, unfortunately, by an army man. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had wanted Lt Gen Rajendrasinhji to be the first Indian to hold the post of “Commander-in-Chief, India”. This offer was turned down by Rajendrasinhji, the erstwhile Maharajah of Jamnagar, of 2nd Lancers and Mechili fame, on the basis that Lt Gen KM Cariappa deserved it more as he was senior in service. Even so, when defmin Sardar Baldev Singh asked about what should matter more in military promotions — merit or seniority, Nehru had advised that the danger of stressing seniority at all was that, in time, it would edge out considerations of merit. This, alas, is what’s happened.
So no one can cavil at Rawat’s anointment as COAS or the government’s overlooking Bakshi’s candidature. But if Modi had really wanted to make a political-military splash, Hariz would have been a better choice. Why? The very fact of selecting Hariz would have completely and instantly won over the Indian Muslims — the section of Indian society most resistant to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s political charms and which, because of the post-Godhra riots in Gujarat, is most distrustful of Modi. The first impact of Hariz’s selection would have been the demolishing of the opposition parties in the upcoming UP state elections. Minus the Muslim vote bloc, the Congress, the Samajwadi Party of Mulayam Singh-Akhilesh Singh — Yadav pater and fils, and the Bahujan Samaj Party of Mayawati, would all have been politically disemboweled, which effect would have endured into 2019 and the general elections. It is the sort of action that would have spoken stronger than a thousand election rallies, and decisively reordered the political firmament.
Hariz as Indian Army chief would also have had a sobering effect on the Pakistan Army. I argued long ago that Pakistan would have most to fear an Indian Muslim officer’s elevation to COAS, whenever that happens. He will be more motivated to showcase his patriotism and take no nonsense in particular from Pakistan. What that would mean in real terms is hard to predict, but suffice to say GHQ-Rawalpindi would be especially careful not to give him and India offense. In this respect, Hariz’s mechanized infantry background would have been an additional reason for Pakistani caution. Pakistanis would have been mindful of the fact that the bulk of the mech infantry in the Indian army, and Hariz’s own professional focus, has been to prepare to affect deep sweeps into Pakistan in time of hostilities. True, Hariz is a Malyali Muslim from Kozikode District and not a Punjabi mussalman, or a Muslim from UP and Bihar, which would have had a more visceral effect in Islamabad. But it would have been a Muslim as Indian COAS and that doubtless would have had lasting impact, who knows, possibly for the better.
Sometimes a government’s knowing just whom to pick to serve what larger political purpose can turn out to be crucial to the country’s interests.