The New Chief
The announcement of military chiefs in India has usually been an unremarkable, ritualistic affair, with the name of the senior-most eligible candidate being announced about two months prior to the changeover. With the announcement of Lt General Bipin Rawat as the incoming Army Chief to replace General Dalbir Singh, however, the NDA government has disrupted things-as-usual by dispensing with the long-standing noun of seniority. According to reports, the government’s argument is that it chose the most suitable officer based on various aspects of the security situation in the country and the future scenario. In the current security situation, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency are the key issues and the government arguably felt that Lt General Rawat is best suited for the position by virtue of his operational assignments. The decision has sparked controversy — for one, it is being pointed out that the role of the Army Chief is not of an operational nature, it deals with the strategic management of national security at the highest level. Hence, there is need for the government to communicate more openly and clearly the reasons for its decision.
Having said that, it must be reiterated that the political leadership has the final prerogative of selecting the Army Chief. That is essential to maintaining the delicate balance of civil-military relations in a constitutional democracy. Seniority cannot be the sole criterion for selecting a military chief. But the alternative to choosing by seniority cannot be an opaque, arbitrary selection made by the political leadership. The government should formulate an institutionalised process which delineates the selection criteria clearly, so that not only is the selection fair, it is also seen to be fair. This would require of the political leadership a greater engagement with the military. There is an inherent risk of political interference in such a case, but that is the only way ahead for a more transparent and professional selection process.
The incoming Chief inherits a challenging environment on the national security front. The ceasefire on the Line of Control is being followed more in its breach and the level and intensity of violence has gone up in the Kashmir Valley this year. Closer cooperation between China and Pakistan, especially on the military front, is another cause of worry as a new army chief has assumed office in Rawalpindi. Internally, there have been voices of discontent in the army over the pay commission, interse seniority with civilian officials and the one rank-one pension issue. General Rawat will have to hit the ground running to take these things in his stride.