The Invention of the Seniority Principle in the Appointment of Army Chiefs

The appointment of Lieutenant General Bipin Rawat as the new army chief, superseding two senior officers, has brought back the unique South Asian debate of ‘seniority vs merit’ with many observers pointing out the exceptional nature of the current case. However, the fact is that the seniority principle is a relatively recent invention, having become a source of contention only in the 1980s.

Prior to it, going back to the time of independence and even before, seniority was never considered the sole criterion for appointing a new army chief. Choosing the nation’s top general, much like its top bureaucrat or diplomat, had always been a matter of judging a variety of factors, including merit and seniority.

Before 1983, two army chiefs – including the celebrated General K.S. Thimayya – were appointed without giving regard to seniority. Even in other cases, seniority never served as a guarantee for promotion. However, with the infamous case of General A.S. Vaidya superseding Lt Gen S. K. Sinha in 1983, things changed.

Wary of any sign of ‘politicisation’ of the military, the media and civil societies adopted the idea of seniority, attacking the subsequent governments any time there was even a hint of a movement away from this principle. Consequently, in its overzealousness to ensure an apolitical military, India has ensured that it repeatedly ends up with army chiefs who are most senior rather than whose careers are most stellar.

The obsession with seniority in the Indian armed forces is not new. It can be traced back to the 19th century British Indian army, in which the issue of supersession was regularly invoked.

However, the argument was not about the politicisation of the army but instead about the career opportunities for the Indian army officers, who regularly saw the king’s army officers promoted above them. Seniority, thus inducted in the military parlance, stayed as a factor that was considered for promotion but did not become the sole criterion.

In independent India, when the government sought to appoint the first Indian army chief, the senior-most officer Lt Gen K. M. Cariappa was not the only contender for the post.

Similarly, General Thimayya, who was popular within the army and close to Jawaharlal Nehru, was long seen as the possible army chief, despite him being relatively junior to other officers.

In 1957, his appointment came through, superseding two other officers, without raising much controversy. Ironically, his clashes with the then defence minister Krishna Menon are now often invoked by the proponents of the seniority principle. However, they had nothing to do with seniority at the time. Menon was accused of promoting officers on political basis instead of merit. Defending Menon in the parliament, Nehru stated that “merit was the only consideration for promotion.” In fact, Thimayya himself supported his protégé Lt Gen S.P.P. Thorat succeeding him, who was junior to General P.N. Thapar who was chosen by the government.

Even after the 1962 war, the army chiefs being the senior-most officer was a trend, not a rule. In parliament, the then finance minister Morarji Desai declared that “supersessions in future will be as inevitable as they had been in the past.”

When General Sam Manekshaw became the new army chief in 1969, many questioned the decision, even though Maneshaw was the senior-most officer, because his chief contender Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh was considered to be more qualified at the time. In 1975, when General T.N. Raina was appointed the army chief, superseding Lt Gen Rawlley, it was such an unremarkable fact that it received no media attention and now it is practically forgotten.

However, when General Vaidya superseded the then vice army chief Lt Gen Sinha in 1983, all hell broke loose. Indira Gandhi’s government came under attack for carrying out an “unprecedented” move by violating the seniority principle. There were several factors that contributed to this furore. In 1983, following the Emergency and the unstable Janata government, the political atmosphere was still charged. Only four years before that, the then army chief General Malhotra had to publicly deny any possibility of a military coup. On top of it, Gandhi had made the decision without providing any significant public explanation. Lt Gen Sinha, who was seen as a likely successor before this announcement, was seen to have been martyred at the hands of an increasingly dictatorial prime minister.

This public sympathy did little for Sinha, who went on to unsuccessfully contest for an MP seat in Bihar. It did, however, make the principle of seniority sacrosanct in the public eye. When the Rajiv Gandhi government superseded three lieutenant-generals for an army commander position in 1987, it received scathing criticism. Since then, the subsequent governments have largely respected this invented rule of seniority, and have come under heavy attacks for ‘politicising’ the military any time they have hinted at violating it in the appointment of any of the three service chiefs.

However, this zeal to keep the armed services free of political interference has created an absurd situation where the highest military ranks of the country are decided by the date of birth rather than merit. The civilian government, with its theoretical supremacy over the military, cannot choose its own generals. The process is akin to selecting six best runners in the world through competition for a final Olympic race and then choosing the winner amongst them by a coin toss.

Further, in today’s complex security environment, there is a greater need for specialisation. An army chief needs to be best-suited for the security priorities of the day. A general with extensive experience of conventional warfare will be ill-prepared to oversee a nation engaged in a counter-insurgency or advanced cyber warfare.

On top of it, the insistence that the appointment of the army chief is somewhat automatic has removed the need for any public discussion during the selection process. The system has become opaque as there is no basis for speculation before or for questioning after the decision. Consequently, the Indian public knows far less about its incoming army chief today than it did prior to the 1980s when the top general of the country was a more public and thus a more publicly scrutinised figure.

While politicisation of the military is dangerous for any democracy, excessive de-politicisation has its own pitfalls. Many countries around the world manage to navigate around these problems by forging a middle path. Open discussion and transparent processes can ensure an apolitical but meritocratic selection. Seniority alone cannot be the shield for democracy.

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