CHANDIGARH: For over three decades the Appointments Committee of the Government of India has followed the seniority list in appointing the Chief of Army Staff. It is only on two previous occasions that the chain of seniority was broken.

In both these cases the government felt that those on top of the seniority list were strong personalities, which did not seem to suit the then political dispensation. Lt Gen S K Sinha was superseded by Lt Gen Arun Vaidya, a highly decorated officer who, it was felt would follow political bidding without demur. Sure enough he did just that and failed to render firm advice to the government against military action at the Golden Temple, (Operation Blue Star) which resulted in disastrous consequences.

So when a government selects a pliable officer for the highest post in the military, it denies itself the benefit of appropriate and good advice. It is universally believed, within military circles, that had Gen SK Sinha been the COAS, he would have certainly advised the government against a military attack on the Golden temple.

Decidedly it is the government’s prerogative to select an army chief from a shortlist of five or six names, but it must have some very solid reasons to break the chain of seniority, especially when merit too is being overlooked.

Some defence analysts have questioned the very need to challenge the government on this issue, forgetting that India is still a democracy and therefore, such questions can be raised or else, where was the need for the government to justify its action of superseding some very capable officers.

Even if one is to ignore the fact that presently the one on top of the list is universally acknowledged as, well above the rest and is highly regarded within military circles, there have to be some very compelling and valid grounds to bypass him. In the present case there appears to be no such grounds or rationale to promote Gen Bipin Rawat superseding other two very competent and deserving officers.

The ministry’s reason to break this over three decade old practice of following the seniority list, is that Gen Bipin Rawat has experience of counterinsurgency and operations against militants, besides spending considerable time at the LoC in Jammu and Kashmir. In this argument the Ministry of Defence, as also a number of defence analysts ,has missed woods for the trees.

Surely the raison d’ etre for the third largest army in the world cannot be merely to deal with, low level insurgency and random attacks by militants! Nor can experience in these two fields be the deciding factor in the selecting chief for such a large army, whose essential task is to safeguard territorial integrity of this vast country and meet the emerging security challenges in the region and hence, whose chief must have the vision and ability to comprehend complex issues related to national security.

The Indian Army is equipped and trained essentially for the defence of India. Its involvement in anti militancy and counter insurgency operations is primarily due to the inability of the state and central police to measure up to these tasks, due to their lack of training, and motivation. India’s Chief of Army Staff has to handle issues at the strategic level, equip the army with the right type of weaponry, integrate his forces with other two services based on operational demands. He has to mesh military actions and plans with those of the aims and policies of the political executive.

The security scene in the region is least reassuring and the deteriorating relations with Pakistan, the developments in Afghanistan, West Asia, and China’s assertions in the immediate neighborhood and developments in Southeast Asia, all impact India’s national security.

In the face of such complicated and involved security issues, dealing with militancy in J and K, being on the Line of Control and tackling low level insurgency in the North East of India fade into insignificance and so does the alleged expertise in these areas.

It has been China's policy to involve India in insurgency and militancy so as to tie it down locally. While insurgency in the North East, have had China’s tacit and material support, it has been using Pakistan as a proxy to promote terror attacks across the border in the West. The ultimate aim being to narrow down India’s attention and focus on local security issues rather than the larger security imperatives of the region.

The rationale of appointing the new chief, as enunciated by the Government of India, points to the fact that government vision and priorities have shifted from the larger strategic issues to these peripheral tasks, engineered by China.

The nuclear issue looms large on the Indian horizon, where development and deployment of Tactical Nuclear Weapons by Pakistan portends to add yet another dimension to any future conflict.

Then there is the distinct possibility of having to fight a two front war with all its complexity. So for the Indian Army Chief, the strategic horizon is wide open and demands clear grasp of complex issues inherent in modern warfare and a vision, intellect and strength of character to inspire this large army.

This government has overlooked seniority in the selection of army chief, but has completely failed to come up with any cogent or compelling reason for the same. An army chief who cannot render firm advice to the political leadership in matters of national security and operational issues, can be a liability and for sure bring about a national disaster which Gen Thapar did in 1the 1962 war against China.

On the other hand Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw's firm stand against political pressure to invade East Pakistan during March-April 1971, paid off to the great advantage of political leadership.

Unfortunately this government has broken the convention of following the seniority criteria, presumably due to political expediency, motivated intelligence inputs or supposedly pliability of the selected and has tried to cover its tracks on this misstep by assigning the untenable and specious cover of experience in low level counter insurgency etc. All this does not wash with the well informed.

Due to the ongoing painful struggle by Indian Defence Forces for an equitable dispensation vis-a-vis civil services ( OROP, NFFU etc ) and consequent low morale, this sidelining of a very capable officer, without any viable and cogent reasons is yet another blow to the already declining spirit of the defence forces.

The social media is awash with Bipin Rawat’s BJP connection. It is a sad day for the Indian military and the government, which has taken an unfortunate step and in the process politicised the military. The Government may have shot itself in the foot.

(Lt General Jasbir Dhaliwal,PVSM, AVSM, VSM is retired from the Indian Army)

(Cover Photograph:Indian troops forming a man-tow for artillery over rough mountain terrain during the 1962 War )