The controversial nature of the new Indian army chief’s appointment and the corruption scandal involving a former air chief has brought the Indian military leadership in the media spotlight once again. In India, traditionally, military leadership has got a short shrift. The lack of a strategic culture in India, evident from the lack of understanding of military matters by the civilian hierarchy, is a possible reason for this. The gradual “corporatisation” of the Indian armed forces is another possible contributory factor, where corporate mismanagement has undermined time-proven military leadership skills. India and its defence establishment need to revisit their own military leadership culture and identify weaknesses. A more copious media debate and agitation by the cognoscenti is required before policy changes could possibly be brought about in this regard.
Military leadership offers different sets of challenges than its civilian variant. Over the years, some civilian leaders have to tried to imbibe certain aspects of military leadership but with very little success. Attempts by the military to “civilianise” or “corporatise” its leadership ethos may have more dangerous implications as it could have a direct impact on national security.
A military leader needs to lead men into battle. In the absence of war, the armed forces tend to lose their leadership perspective, and consequently, their fighting edge. This seems to be the case with the Indian armed forces, as these days, they are employed essentially only for counter-insurgency or Low Intensity Conflict Operations. The challenges are even more profound when a military establishment must keep itself battle ready even in times of comparative “peace” or “no peace, no war” situations. This is when basic tenets of military leadership cannot be allowed to be glossed over.
The biggest problem for a peace-time military is what has been described as the “ticket-punching” phenomenon. Every military service lays down norms to enable its officer cadre to have a smooth transition from its tactical to operational and strategic levels of leadership. Nevertheless, some officers choose to “ticket-punch” their way through the established hierarchical shaft, either avoiding the more challenging assignments altogether by opting for “low threat” assignments or by opting for other ornamental staff jobs. These “easier” assignments also tend to offer inflated report statuses numerically, allowing the concerned ticket-punchers to steal a march over their other colleagues who may have exposed themselves to operationally much more challenging and riskier assignments. The promotion criteria in all services, therefore, ought to be based on a military leader’s successful transition across the mandatory field and staff assignments across all levels – tactical, operational and strategic – of war, and not any other extraneous considerations.
Another factor that assists "ticket-punchers" in gaining an unfair advantage is the ill-thought out changes in personnel policies, at times provoked by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The Staff/Operations criteria attempt proposed by the Army – and undone by the MoD – and the wanton reduction some years ago of “discretionary weightage” drastically from 25 per cent to 5 per cent (precluding the scope for objectively compensating a deserving candidate during promotion for higher ranks in the Air Force) are two such cases in point.
If the Establishment sends across the message of appointing only an “operationally sound” officer as the chief of any of the services, most travails regarding inept senior level military leadership would be overcome. Even with such merit-imbued promotional criteria in place, it is possible that a senior military functionary, including a chief, could get compromised in some scam. Air Chief Marshall (Retd) Shashi Tyagi’s alleged involvement in the AgustaWestland chopper scam is one such example. These types of situations need to be addressed through reforms such as Intelligence Bureau vetting, subordinate reportage in confidential reports, and increased transparency in the equipment procurement processes. What is currently playing out with Air Chief Marshall (Retd) Shashi Tyagi is a different matter altogether. He appears to be the fall guy for big political entities. With a proactive judiciary, it is only a matter of time before the truth prevails.
The requirement, therefore, is to ensure that military leadership does not get compromised in terms of dilution of mandatory qualitative criteria for any promotion, particularly the ones to starred ranks. This would remove any possible controversy if a person with better operational credentials supersedes lesser endowed peers. Military leadership has to be nurtured over time. Performance in wars may not always be a practical criterion, given that the entire military leadership is now from a “post-war” era as they were commissioned post-1971, the system should look for other norms. It is still possible that these criteria could be ignored leading to the wrong person being elevated to the top job. India’s Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar is quite right when he says that seniority alone cannot be a criterion for promotion. This is where the Indian military needs doctrinal precepts to support its personnel policies, preventing tinkering of norms without objective analyses. India also needs to put in place institutional quadrennial defence reviews like they have in the US – to undertake reformations in the Indian military’s operational, administrative and support infrastructure and procedures.