Lt Gen Bipin Rawat as army chief: Strategic vision, not tactical achievements may have swung decision

Predictably, the government’s decision of appointing Lt General Bipin Rawat as the next Chief of the Army Staff (COAS) by superseding the “senior-most eligible officers”, the Eastern Army Commander Lt General Praveen Bakshi, and Southern Army Commander Lt General PM Hariz, has now become a political issue, with the Opposition Congress, Janata Dal (U) and the two Communist parties (CPM and CPI) questioning the decision.

In fact, as I had written in this platform last week, it is this unfortunate politicisation of the military appointments that prevents the new and better norms from being encouraged for the much required military reforms in the country.

 Lt Gen Bipin Rawat as army chief: Strategic vision, not tactical achievements may have swung decision

Lt Gen Bipin Rawat. File photo. Getty Images

The issue of seniority in top appointments always raises the question: Which should prevail – the quantum of experience or the quality of experience? And, if one goes by the examples of leading military powers of the world, there has been a systematic endeavour to go by the quality, not the quantum, of experience. It is in this context that it is interesting to know the Narendra Modi government’s explanation behind its choice of General Rawat as the next army chief.

Apparently, the government sources have told The Times of India, that “General Rawat is the candidate best suited to deal with emerging challenges, and that his operational experience and ‘general dynamism’ tipped the scales in his favour.” It is said that General Rawat has “more than 10 years of experience in counter-insurgency operations and on the Line of Control, besides serving on the China border. He has the requisite experience considering the current situation.”

Incidentally, it is not the first time in India that a senior-most officer has been denied the topmost position in his or her service, whether it is a civilian, judicial or a military job. Indira Gandhi was the prime minister when Justice AN Ray superseded three senior judges of the Supreme Court to become the Chief Justice in 1973. Again it was Indira Gandhi whose government in 1983 appointed General AS Vaidya as the Army Chief in 1983 superseding General SK Sinha.

In 2004, the Manmohan Singh government appointed Shyam Saran as the foreign secretary by superseding four senior officials in the Indian Foreign Service. But what it did in 2006 was even more eye-raising. It appointed Shivshankar Menon as foreign secretary, although 16 serving officers were senior to him; this was a decision that triggered a virtual rebellion in the Ministry of External Affairs, with many of the superseded diplomats deciding to quit the service. In 2014, the same Manmohan Singh government appointed Admiral Robin Kumar Dhowan as the Navy Chief, bypassing Vice-Admiral Shekhar Sinha, the flag officer commander-in-chief of the Western Naval Command and the senior most Naval officer at that time.

Of course, it is always debatable whether the above choices were based on the factor of merits or otherwise. But the point is that it is not a sacrosanct norm to go by the factor of seniority in the top-level military appointments. In neither the United Kingdom nor the United States, the countries that India will like to be compared with, the chiefs of the armed services are necessarily the senior-most officers; indeed in many a case their appointments have been least anticipated.

The appointment of Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach as the Head of the UK armed forces early this year was announced at a time when the military circles were expecting either Army General Sir Richard Barrons, or First Sea Lord Admiral George Zambellas for the coveted position. One remembers in this context the famous remark of the then Prime Minister David Cameron, "You do the fighting and I'll do the talking." Similarly, in the United States in 2011, President Barack Obama nominated a relatively junior General Martin Dempsey as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But neither in Britain nor in the US, had these appointments become a political issue.

In fact, there is now an emerging school of thought in the military sphere that while efforts must be made to identify “tactical commanders” at battalion and brigade level, for higher posts officers with “strategic leadership” potentials should be rewarded. Strategic leadership includes attributes of being a “combat genius” (fighting beyond the plan, innovating as one fights, staying well ahead of the enemy in imaginative application of combat power); “political genius” ( wielding and melding the elements of military power with allies and politicians, mastering civil-military discourse); “institutional genius” ( managing a very large institution and making it relevant to the needs of the nation); and “anticipatory genius” (having the ability to think in time and imagine conceptually where the nature and character of war is headed).

Here, the “experience” suggests that those officers who had shown great tactical skill did not equal great strategic skill. Tactically talented officers can do a great job in making the convoys run on time, but they may not anticipate a battlefield that has yet to appear. On the other hand, those gifted with strategic foresights have often been found wanting in tactical maneuvers; they have been better at conceptualising warfare rather than practicing it.

As retired US Major General Robert H Scales says, “Tactically talented officers can move hundreds. Strategically talented officers can maneuver hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Tactically talented officers know how to fight enemies they know. Strategically talented officers are prepared to fight enemies yet unforeseen. The tactically talented read the manuals and put existing doctrine into practice. Strategically talented officers continually question doctrine and eventually seek to change it. Tacticians see what is; strategists conjure what might be.”

Viewed thus, let us hope that General Rawat has been rewarded by the Modi government for his “strategic” leadership (or its assessment that the new chief will provide such a leadership) attributes, not necessarily for his “tactical” achievements in Kashmir, the China-borders and dealing with counterinsurgencies.

Updated Date: Dec 19, 2016 16:25:39 IST