No government can feel comfortable if the head of the Army is perceived to be carrying political baggage.
At the pinnacle in every department of the state, the government of the day should be, and always is, at complete liberty to appoint anyone within a few obvious parameters related to competence, experience and integrity. That has not been breached in the appointment of Lt. Gen. Bipin Rawat to the position of Army Chief, though he will be superseding two officers in rising to the highest rank.
In general, the seniority principle is a useful device. That is why the naming of the new Army Chief is only the second time since Independence that the seniormost individual has been overlooked. The last time this happened was in 1983 when Lt. Gen. S.K.Sinha was susperseded and his junior, Lt. Gen. A.S.Vaidya, was promoted over him. Then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had felt Lt. Gen Sinha was too close to the late Jayaprakash Narayan who had launched a “total revolution” against her government, and to the shortlived Janata Party government.
In that sense, the PM had brought in an unstated political consideration into the mix, which she was entitled to do. No government can feel comfortable if the head of the Army is perceived to be carrying political baggage. But this doesn’t appear to be the case in the naming of the next Army Chief by the Narendra Modi government.
Evidently, the selection was made in keeping with the government’s defence and security priorities in the near future — these appear to concern Pakistan in the context of Kashmir — and the profile and experience of the officer for the task.
The government owes no explanations on this, although a Congress spokesman has sought this. (A BJP spokesman has said raising a “controversy” about the armed forces is “unpatriotic”. That is incomprehensible. All questions about the armed forces cannot be reduced to patriotism.)
The government’s decision to supersede two officers may not have raised eyebrows if it weren’t for the fact that in this government top-level appointments haven’t been filled in a routine, clear, timely and dignified way. This became most evident when the incumbent foreign secretary’s services were terminated and her replacement parachuted in. Delays have characterised the appointments of the heads of the Central Vigilance Commission, IB and R&AW, and the chiefs of the Army and Indian Air Force. An acting chief has been named for the CBI and the issue has become controversial.
The Modi government doesn’t seem to have understood that such key appointments are best made around two months before an incumbent retires, as has been the practice. The blatant disregard of this has given the impression that “yes-men” are sought than obvious professionals. This, in fact, is bad for the selected individuals and for the institutions that they will lead.