COAS appointment — a multi-benefit opportunity missed

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.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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16 Responses to COAS appointment — a multi-benefit opportunity missed

  1. ideawar says:

    Totally disagree. One cannot be selected just on the basis of religion. I usually admire Mr. Karnad’s views. But this is awful.

  2. Shaurya says:

    I will be tickled pink if the appointment is indeed to undertake some type of massive restructuring of our force structures. Fear it is done for far shallow(not shady) reasons .

    Disagree though that the government should use the post for outright political signals. If it so happens that the best person in their judgment is a Muslim, so be it.

  3. Venkat says:

    Government need not send a political signal by appointing a particular religion. Utter non sense.
    The current process in gouge for decades states a few names (3-5) are short listed by the MoD and sent to cabinet team on appointments. They select out of them. period.
    If the whole political and journalist world world only the senior most be appointed, there were 70 years to set the process.
    Stupid article.

  4. Raj says:

    The COAS looks after all theatres of War including cyber and information warfare. If so, then his J&K & China profile may be unsuitable in our two and a half front war with cold start doctrine. Theatre commanders influence the battles in their respective theatres. If infantry officers can command armoured formations and armour heavy theatres then your argument is flawed.
    Also, political expediency to win elections can and should never compel politicians to tinker with the fabric of this great Army.

  5. andy says:

    There is a powerful need for symbolism, and that means the architecture must have something that appeals to the human heart.This is probably the reason why India has had Muslim Presidents and Vice Presidents, as also from other minorities.If anyone denies that religion and regionalism have a powerful appeal amongst the Indian population it would amount to denying the obvious,as also the fact that political parties in power mostly want to milk their governments decision for electoral gains.

    All other things being equal,there is certainly a lot of merit in considering a Muslim for the post of COAS,it would be a great symbolic gesture by GOI that would certainly smoothen a lot of ruffled feathers amongst the Indian Muslims, probably leading to electoral gains,after all winning elections is what the political game is all about.

  6. Disagree with the religion argument. Accept civilian oversight and prerogative(qualified) , but not using politics, especially religious considerations. Army understands plural ethos better than other civilian institutions in India. It has dharma sthal not place of worship. Officers take the religion of the men and all religious symbolism including in ‘war cry’ is celebrated without being ‘secular’.

    Also it continues to have regimental system based on community names without ‘caste’ considerations. In these respects Indian Military especially the Army is unmatched.

    This article was engaging right up to the religion argument. Realpolitic may be Mr Karnad’s forte. But I as a layman would urge him to consign this argument (politics in appointment) to one of those A+ for creativity but otherwise worthy of throwing out of the window.

  7. &^%$#@! says:

    It is improper to inject suggestions for the hiring of senior Services positions by stating communal arguments/theories.

  8. As a controversy erupted over Rawat’s appointment, here’s a look at how key appointments led to controversies during the UPA tenure.

    1. Shiv Shankar Menon, the blue-eyed diplomat of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, then foreign minister Pranab Mukherjee and many others in the UPA, superseded over 12 seniors for the post of the foreign secretary in 2006.

    While the government stuck to its decision, there was a major resentment in the foreign establishment and two Indian ambassadors (in France and Dhaka) resigned for being overlooked for the top job. A secretary in the foreign office also quit.

    2. Kiran Bedi, the feisty police officer, was all set to become Delhi Police commissioner after KK Paul but the UPA government decided the other way. Bedi, India’s first woman Indian Police Service (IPS) officer, was sent as chief of the bureau of police research and development organisation.

    YS Dadwal, two batches junior to Bedi in service, was handpicked by the Centre to head the national capital’s police force in July 2007. Bedi, a 1972 batch IPS officer, eventually joined the BJP and is currently the Lieutenant Governor of Puducherry.

    3. In 2013, the UPA government appointed Syed Asif Ibrahim, a 1977 batch IPS officer of Madhya Pradesh cadre, as the director of the Intelligence Bureau. The government overlooked the claims of Yashovardhan Azad, senior by a batch to Ibrahim, for the post.

  9. Syed Asif Ibrahim, director, Intelligence Bureau didn’t impressed Islamabad. They always fall back on CIA, Saudi, Chinese overlords. Now Trump may disrupt the order. hard to say.

  10. Gp Capt TP Srivastava says:

    It was amusing to read the write up; specially the ‘missed opportunity’ part. Before I proceed with my comments, I am posting what I wrote on another platform for my uniformed colleagues.

    “Any discussion, irrespective of persons discussing it, is irrelevant and will lead to lowering of the status of CoAS. Can we learn from bureaucrats? Menon was appointed Foreign Secretary by previous government superseding 12 colleagues. Did we hear any noises except for Sikri couple?

    Firstly, my spontaneous response as well as ‘thoughtful’ response does not change because I carry firm and unshakable conviction.
    Secondly, contrarian views, irrespective of supposed logic will not alter outcome.
    Thirdly, if we even manage to prove that superseded officers are better than selected CoAS, WE ARE IN EFFECT DIRECTLY ASSERTING THAT ‘ a not so competent person heads the valiant Indian Army.
    Fourthly, all crap posted on net is also read and discussed by junior officers as well as men.

    I, therefore, leave it to wisdom of ‘GENERALS, who must place their views in public domain.

    For me Bipin Rawat and Dhanoa remain the BEST candidates to lead respective service, notwithstanding my personal views, but strictly in privacy.”

    Now about your write up. Yet another case of ‘post event’ wisdom. After reading your post I went through records from 01 Jan 1997 till date. You would be astonished to know that in past 20 years there were at least TEN VICE CHIEFS FROM THREE SERVICES, who did not make it to top chair. Hence your first line of article regarding ‘straws and the winds’ are not really relevant. On religious issue enough has already been said, hence no further attempt to bulldoze the issue. Accidentally I also watched RSTV of 19th Dec comprising of eminent personalities like your self, Gen Roychaudhary, Maj Gen Bakshi (my NDA Coursemate) and an eminent editor ( only person with rational viewpoint). Military officers harped on super cession and seniority.
    Super session is not a measure of once competence or otherwise. For top post in all spheres we promote MOST COMPETENT FROM A GROUP OF OTHERWISE COMPETENT PERSONS. Those who view super session as a slur on their competence, indeed are incompetent to move up. My colleagues take on super session is view of an obscured person. I was superseded; it was traumatic. I also thought of throwing in the towel by resigning. That is when my wife stepped in; only time in my service of over three decades); she said by resigning merely because you have been superseded, you will only confirm to others about your unsuitability for promotion. Continue and retire gracefully, which is what I did. My unsolicited counsel to Praveen and Hariz is to continue serving with dignity and super-annuate.
    I have served with Pakistani officers in middle east. Your assumption that it would make any difference, whatsoever to their psyche is misplaced. It is even more preposterous to state that there should be a Muslim Chief to assuage Indian Muslims.

    • Selecting the top brass is solely the Prime Minister’s duty and privilege. In all other major democracies IB Chief’s’ equivalents report directly to their Prime Minister bypassing Defense, Home ministries. Sorry, America. Your FBI director routinely have personal talk with President. Excluding his bosses. Attorney General, VP, Sec. State, Def, Speaker of Senate.

  11. Sir, how would COAS Rawat be for the push of indigenization

  12. Gp Capt TP Srivastava says:

    A rejoinderMr Karnad… I have never heard of you and have no clue of your background but I can certainly conjecture based on your written word of what ilk you are. I wouldn’t have really cared except that someone forwarded your piece of trash with its very correct rejoinder by a proud officer of the IAF which made me wonder what your motive was? What makes you feel that your military consists of cheaters and robbers and not fearless leaders of men? The world certainly acknowledges our IAF as amongst the finest so why not you? go ask the Pakistanis and they will correct your perceptions.

    It is apparent that you have no knowledge of the subject at hand, nor does it appear that you have any inkling of how the military operates, and if you do, it is quite evident that you have an axe to grind, why? I don’t know and really wouldn’t care except that people like you are damaging the framework of the Indian society through rumour mongering and it concerns me. If you had proof of your written words, I and so many others would have backed you to the hilt but even though we are no longer serving in the armed forces but our pride and being does not permit us to see the name of our institutions blemished by people like you. It eventually hurts our nation. These are the last bastions of the Indian society and you have no right to damage them.

    There are many like you who have grudges and use such moments to unburden their own guilt in a free forum, even though they realise that the damage they do to the nation in spreading lies and hate through unsubstantiated utterances is immense. Using your right of freedom of speech to besmirch the image of a muzzled military through lies and half truths is pure cowardice, and misleading your own countrymen is treacherous, think about it. Your use of the Air Chief Marshal’s nick name (Bundle) as an intended pun is in such poor taste, it clearly places you in the category of persons ‘who carry the unseen label of “cowards and liars” around their necks’ and should be deemed as a major threat to our society, especially in the era of “Swachh Bharat”.

    Baba Handa
    Commodore IN NM (Retd) by a proud soldier;

  13. andy says:

    “A man interrupted one of the Buddha’s lectures with a flood of abuse.
    Buddha waited until he had finished and then asked him:
    If a man offered a gift to another but the gift was declined, to whom would the gift belong?
    To the one who offered it, said the man.
    Then, said the Buddha, I decline to accept your abuse and request you to keep it for yourself.”

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