SENIORITY AND SUPERSESSION IN PERSPECTIVE…

We are witnessing a supersession debate in public, once again over the appointment of a Service Chief designate. This is not the first time a Service Chief will be superseded and it will not be the last. But whenever this happens, a spate of reactions follow – most of which are opinions and misinformed conjectures, leaving men and women both in uniform and out of it bewildered. So what is this about seniority and supersession in a Service Chief’s appointment that makes headlines and evokes such passionate responses?

In armed forces worldwide and certainly in the Indian armed forces, seniority is sacred. This unique and important characteristic is deeply ingrained in young military minds in the process of indoctrination at boot camp academies across the armed forces, both among officers and enlisted personnel – and for very good reason.

The essential difference between the rest of society and the armed forces is that while the former live and work to realise a future where wealth and prosperity will be assured for them and their kin, the latter train to fight and lay down their lives if necessary, in the line of duty. In such a starkly contrasting life-ethos, concepts like seniority have hugely different meanings and intents. In the civil private sector, for example, life moves mostly in short spells. A typical work spell could be 3 to 5 years, when greener pastures beckon. Environments change, colleagues change and bosses change. Bottom-line finances are the only determinants of success. At the topmost echelon, the person with the highest potential to make money for the organisation being the boss is an accepted norm. In family run businesses, the owner and the inner family circle call the shots – age, sex, gender, qualification or suitability notwithstanding.

In the bureaucracy and public sector, there is a little more permanence and the organisational structure is much flatter compared to the steep pyramidal structure of the armed forces. There is assured career progression till fairly senior ranks and non-functional pay increases even if people are not promoted. There are cases where promotions are refused for other personal considerations. A government job of any description is seen as an instrument of getting through life with minimum work and maximum benefits. There is some respect for seniority but it is mostly deft writing of recruitment rules that lands people plum posts as they climb the ladder. Movement out to low visibility jobs are not uncommon when individuals fall out of favour. It is an evolved game of ‘snakes and ladders’.

In sharp contrast, the armed forces can never deliver in conflict without the utmost respect for seniority and the highest standards of professionalism. Leading men in war or conflict is not an easy task. This is not possible without unquestioning loyalty and belief of soldiers, sailors and air warriors in their superiors and an unflinching adherence to seniority as well as the command and control hierarchy. So critical is this aspect, that insubordination or mutinous behaviour in conflict or war is one of the gravest of offences attracting the severest of all punishments. It is for this reason that the armed forces hold seniority sacred.

Now comes the interesting part – the relationship between seniority and supersession. Simply put, one is senior till superseded by a junior. Every officer in the armed forces other than Service Chiefs and Commanders-in-Chief is superseded at some stage or the other. Most other three-star ranking officers superannuate at or before reaching the level of Commanders-in-Chief. At lower rungs of the pyramid, selection or supersession is based purely on demonstrated performance and here the number of officers sidelined are extraordinarily high. Rejections continue at every level till one lucky person, by some quirk of fate (his date of birth), ends up with the top job. There is hardly any fuss raised at lower levels for loss of promotions. A few officers do represent their grievance but internal mechanisms deal with them effectively and those superseded move on in life gracefully. So what is the big deal about a Service Chief contender being superseded?

There is this argument of competence or merit. The Service Chiefs are selected from a panel of the senior-most Commanders-in-Chief who have gone past stringent and intensely competitive milestones of commands, promotions, courses and challenging assignments. There should be no doubt about their individual capabilities, professional credentials or other attributes without which it is rather unlikely that they would have merited selection to head operational Commands in the first place. However, the authority of the Union Government in selecting a Service Chief is also absolute and must be respected. Having exercised this authority, the Government could consider a graceful way of informing superseded Service Chief contenders of the reasons for their supersession. Hopefully, grace would beget grace and courts would be spared the agony of intervening in the matter. More importantly, it would reaffirm faith in the rank and file as also among the public at large that offices of Service Chiefs are above politics, as they have always been. May grace prevail – now and in the future.

‘CHEAP AVIATION’ IS DANGEROUS…

As a consumer and a citizen of India, one cannot but be completely stupefied by the state of the civil aviation in the country. The ‘open skies’ policy that envisaged a vibrant growth of the industry while at the same time promising air travel to the common man has been an unqualified failure, as is clearly apparent from the sorry state of once high-flying operators. The owner of Kingfisher Airlines is a fugitive economic offender and now, Jet Airways is flying on a similar trajectory of fold-up – the reasons may well be different. Less said about the national carrier, the better – it would have been long dead and buried without the periodic CPR and oxygen administered by the Union Government.

Affordable flying is a noble intent but apparently, the business models adopted by our carriers do not seem to render operations profitable – quite the opposite. The airlines are not generating revenue to even pay the crew for months together. Trying to sustain such models will obviously push all the remaining carriers to bankruptcy, sooner than later. India is a country where the GDP per capita is in the region of $ 2000 in comparison to the richest nation in the world where it stands at $ 175000. Therefore, all these ‘Udaan’ kind of initiatives are obviously detrimental to the health of the aviation industry. Aviation is a ‘high fixed-cost’ industry and costs of aviation fuel, maintenance, lease payments, parking costs and crew remunerations are going North while at the same time, cut-throat competition is not allowing a commensurate increase in fares, resulting in a clearly unsustainable situation where air fares are often lower than premium train AC fares. Alas, realism has fallen victim to populist measures. It is well past the time when we should have increased air fares, lowered the astronomical crew salaries, curtailed overheads and strengthened other forms of transportation. Better late than never – but let us start for heaven’s sake.

Safety is intrinsic to flying and all carriers must ensure adequate assurance on this critical aspect. Though there are basic minimum standards ensured by the regulator, operators rarely if at all, invest in advanced concepts and tools that accrue cost savings in the long term. The biggest losses in any organisation do not happen due to major accidents as these are rare. Substantial losses occur due to the cumulative impact of minor incidents and ignored risks. Operational risk management may help in averting major disasters or aid in speedy recovery with minimal impact, in addition to saving costs on repairs, maintenance and compensation. Having such robustness needs concerted effort and additional funding; and aviation industry business models must factor this as an essential feature of their operational strategy. Our national regulator, DGCA, also needs to rethink its own functioning and get contemporary with a larger infusion of domain experts who can deliver on stringent aviation safety commitments.

Funding and corporate governance also seem to have their own dynamics. The Kingfisher and Jet stories appear to suggest that stakes of the promoter at the time of borrowing investment capital may be insufficient to ensure efficient operations in the long term and fails to generate profits essential for repayment of debt. With just 10% stake, it is possible to obtain 90% funding from banks. Banks lend money on projections. Who makes these projections? And what happens when such projections fail? Anyway, once the money is released, it seems like a good strategy to park this borrowed money from Indian banks abroad and buy asylum in advance as the promoter knows beforehand that default is either deliberate or inevitable. Otherwise, is it so easy to seek shelter in a foreign country? Perhaps, it is a strategy that the rich, famous and connected can pull off with ease. Further, financial matters of such proportions are rarely decided by one individual. Surely, there are Boards of Directors and Auditors without whose approval or knowledge, no major financial decisions are normally taken – and this points to their total complicity in crime. Very few business houses of stature with the capability and financial muscle to steer the growth trajectory of our country can boast of a corporate culture that is clean and transparent. Sad but true!

Coming back to the humble flyer – please do not be enamoured with cheap fares. An air ticket that costs Rs 20000 cannot be sold for Rs 2000 without compromises being made or shortcuts being taken. And evidently, that cannot be offset by selling a sandwich costing Rs 20 for Rs 200. As a general principle, if anything is too good to be true, it is either short-lived or designed for short-term gains of a handful of unscrupulous individuals. Quality and safety come at a price which airline operators and consumers ought to pay. ‘Cheap Aviation’ is dangerous – we will never know when or where the next corner will be cut. The results could be catastrophic.

THE POST – PULWAMA CIRCUS

A ‘bad circus’ is what best describes post-Pulwama developments in India – or more specifically, developments over Indian television channels. A circus provides entertainment to its viewer – so did post-Pulwama Indian visual media – with one essential difference. Circus performers are skilled professionals. Indian television channels and their anchors, if anything, were the stark opposite in the post-Pulwama circus. The hysteria in their voices, the absolutely uninformed questions, their compulsive need to keep talking just because competing channels were doing so and their complete ignorance of concepts relating to security were intolerably apparent.

          Now let us come to the ‘experts’. A typical characteristic of the Indian television world is its likeness to a popcorn machine. Minutes after any news-worthy event, ‘experts’ pop up like popcorns. Now who are these experts? They are mostly retired bureaucrats and senior military officers, well past their time and therefore ‘date expired’, not necessarily well-read or articulate and most of them with awful media presence. There are even some who go frothing in the mouth and seem to be on the verge of a collapse or seizure after a particularly vicious rant. Except a very few informed and balanced individuals, such ‘experts’ do not contribute in any way to the understanding of the event, its repercussions or any valuable analysis. More importantly, in their eagerness to display ‘knowledge’, they could divulge snippets of information from their ‘uniformed’ memory which is clearly avoidable. They perhaps need to exercise greater discretion – and believe me, they don’t need the pocket money that television channels offer.

          Then there are our armchair tacticians – people who develop colourful graphics on how they think the secret operation was carried out. While much of that makes fictional and humorous reading, completely devoid of any sense, such people would be well-advised to learn that tactical plans are never discussed and should never be discussed beyond the boundaries of operations rooms. More than others, our veteran defence ‘experts’ would do well to remind themselves that they must never be a party to fictional reconstructions of tactical plans as this may inadvertently divulge snippets of classified information into the public domain. And for those armchair tacticians – please join the armed forces if you wish to fulfill your passion for tactics. At least you will learn when to shut up!! 

          Finally, a word about information-handling. Information superiority, in very simple terms, is staying ahead of your opponent in the information game. It is a matter of withholding information, its dissemination or denial, selecting the audience and method; and most importantly, one of timing. Information management in a conflict situation cannot be undertaken by generalists. It requires a deep understanding of all issues that constitute national security and a detailed understanding of events on the ground, at sea or in the air. It is a round-the-clock function requiring speed, discretion, astute filtering skills, empowerment and top-level political direction. In today’s world of instant expectations, another trick is not to fall victim to media pressure and play the information game as a grandmaster would play chess. We therefore need to select our grandmasters carefully and allow them the discretion to either play lightning chess or wear the opponent out with well-strategised information gambits.

Knowledge, discretion and timing are everything in the information game. A complete rethink of our overall ‘Information Strategy’ and deep introspection about the post-Pulwama ‘circus’ would do the country a lot of good. It may be time to make the opening gambit…

RIP BRAVEHEARTS – YOURS IS TO ‘DO AND DIE’

Pulwama is no exception. Each time there is a terror attack on Indian soil, we react in the same, predictable, unimaginative way. By ‘we’, I encompass every section of society that wishes to add its two-bit wisdom to a problem that has defied acceptance leave alone a solution. Sombre-looking political leaders affirming that sacrifices will not go waste, walrus-moustached ex-generals supporting the ‘military option’, all-knowing defence journalists writing columns about the range of options that could be exercised, visual media capitalising on heart-wrenching interactions with wailing wives, children and mothers of those killed, ‘Uri’-watching social media activists who want a repeat commando action at the press of a button and several others who can do nothing else but burn incense or organise candle-light vigils. Cut to the next terror attack where this cycle repeats itself with uncanny similarity.

Our jawans will continue to die. Nothing will change. A solution will mean altering the status quo, it will mean hard decisions, it will mean softening of hardened stances, it will mean tackling Pakistan with much greater resolve and with actions that hurt, it will mean dialogue and consensus, it will mean a give and take, it will mean stopping of easy money going into the troubled state, it will mean reining in people who enjoy political patronage and yet work to subvert national interests, it will mean reconsideration of Art 370, it could mean media curbs, it could mean allowing a free hand to the Army, it could also mean a division of the state, it could mean quietly and ruthlessly eliminating known anti-national outfits and several other measures that are political hot potatoes in our unique version of Democracy. It is much easier to let jawans die. Much easier to add a few hundred more tablets each year to the War Memorial and lay wreaths there occasionally.

If our approach to the Kashmir problem does not radically change, the terrorist will win every time. And we will help them win.

RIP Bravehearts – yours is to Do and Die.