It is generally believed that sapper and signals officers are the brainiest lot in the army, and for good reason. They are called on to have their wits about them in combat and required to come up with engineering solutions on the run for often complex problems in unfolding battefield scenarios. Good thing that finally a sapper — General Manoj Pande, has made it as COAS. The Narendra Modi government needs to be commended for this selection.
Combat engineers have until now been overlooked on the dubious basis that they are from a support arm. Except in reality, they are often the lead unit that allows them to display gut-wrenching valour of the type a Bombay Sapper, Lt Gen Premindra Singh Bhagat, say, showed as a raw Lieutenant in the World War II campaign in Eritrea in January 1941 that fetched him the Victoria Cross. Bhagat lashed himself to the front end of a Bren gun carrier and single-handedly cleared 15 minefields over 55 miles in 4 days, uprooting these mines laid by the Italian army around Galladat by hand, one at a time. He did his work regardless of two Bren carriers blowing up underneath him and the explosions puncturing his eardrums!
Bhagat had all the credentials and the seniority to succeed General GG Bewoor as COAS in 1974, but Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, fearing his popularity among the soldiery and reputation for straight-talking, played dirty. She extended Bewoor’s term by a fortnight, just long enough for Bhagat’s retirement date to come due and render him ineligible for promotion, and just so she could appoint a fellow Kashmiri, Lt Gen TP Raina, as COAS. But unwilling to pass up on Bhagat’s proven leadership nous, engineering skills and general competence, she installed Bhagat as chairman of the prestigious Damodar Valley Corporation which runs a series of hydel and thermal power stations in Bengal and Jharkand.
The next combat engineer who was overlooked by the government to fill the COAS post was army commander and Madras Sapper, Lt. Gen. DSR Sahni in 1993. For me he was special because he was an alumunus of my military school –to give its original moniker — King George’s Royal Indian Military College, Belgaum, which in my time (in the late Fifties-early Sixties) was simply King George’s School. As Northern Army Commander, Sahni hosted my visit as adviser, defence expenditure, (Tenth) Finance Commission in Sept 1992, to the Command HQrs, Udhampur. Between long discussions in his office and at his residence, he ordered me to do a darshan of Vaishnodevi, and deputised the Command’s chief signals officer, a KGS classmate as my escort.
Sahni’s clearly articulated Long View, in particular, was a revelation and convinced me the army needed him as its chief for his strategizing ability alone. Back in Delhi, I tried to plead his obvious qualifications for the COAS job to the powers that be but the Narasimha Rao government put General BC Joshi in the chair. This even though Joshi was medically unfit and should not have been in the running at all. But he wrangled a certificate to show his blood pressure was under control which was not the case, and died in office.
But why do sappers deserve more regularly to be considered for the COAS’ post? In the main because, as engineers they have a problem solving habit of mind and because from a supporting arm, they do not have the kind of blind loyalty to their combat arm that infantry, armour/mech and artillery officers effortlessly summon, and which loyalty invariably weighs in on their decisions, skewing them. Inherent in problem solving is objectivity, which is central to making sound decisions.
Why an engineering background helps in defence decisionmaking was evidenced during Manohar Parrikar’s time as Defence Minister. Parrikar, a mechanical engineer from IIT, Mumbai, and inarguably the most competent man in the history of the Republic to-date to hold this post, after a comparative cost-benefit analysis of Su-30, Rafale, F-16, and Saab Gripen, that involved mathematical calculations, sensibly chose the option of augmenting the Su-30MKI fleet rather than going in for an entirely new fighter aircraft requiring exorbitantly priced munitions and a new, expensive and separate maintenance infrastructure and specially-trained manpower. It earned Parrikar a one-way ticket back to Goa, because the Modi regime had unwisely plonked for a US$12 billion government-to-government deal with France for 36 Rafale aircraft, which will be more an albatross round IAF’s neck than an operational asset.
General Pande will have opportunities galore to showcase his problem solving-mindset and his objectivity, esecially in according inter se priority to the various competing procurement/modernization-related and maintenance-related expenditure programmes. It will decide the direction the army will move in and the kind of force it will become in the future. And also, with consistently wise and measured decisions, Pande will hopefully impress everybody ensuring, in the process, that combat engineers will not get the short shrift again.