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 This is not the first time a Service Chief will be superseded and it will not be the last.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.

26 Replies to “SENIORITY AND SUPERSESSION IN PERSPECTIVE…”

  1. Dasu, a few points, if I may. I think that in the armed forces seniority is important but I doubt if for purposes that matter, ie developing leaders it should be thought of as sacrosanct. In fact, even within a batch/ course, right from commissioning, seniority gained or seniority within a group before a promotion board, date of birth or seniority in the nominal roll or Navy list is not a criterion. I agree with you that it, therefore, need not be so at the final stage of a chief being selected. After all, peculiar to the Navy, the seniority gained for promotion to lieutenant is not related to date of birth but to work put in right from academies to cadets and /mids’ time, etc. ( My course has a hilarious story from our time as naval cadets of one of our Petty Officer’s philosophical thought on merit v/s seniority, but that at another time!!) In fact, seniority isn’t a criterion for selection to chief’s rank in most countries. It was never so in Britain, the US, USSR, Russia, China, and even Pakistan. When the senior-most in the service became the chief, it was just coincidental.
    One more aspect we could consider: it is about your thought that ” 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. …” History shows us repeatedly that combat and war, like nothing else, throws up the need for different types of leaders at each level of warfare, strategic, operational and tactical than peacetime processes are able to generate. Seniority on the list suddenly seems almost irrelevant. Adhering to seniority is not the same as adhering to C2. That understanding means that I will adhere to the chain of command even if my superior has superseded me to become one. A vast majority of officers in this situation show nothing but the best values in peace and war. Political masters, Chiefs, and rank and file expect, especially in crisis, leaders who will deliver , not really caring if the senior-most or others are so delivering.
    In some commentaries, when supersession at the final level occurs, we hear terms like the “principle” of seniority ought to be respected. My thinking is this: Seniority at this stage has really been a custom with some departures in every single decade in some service or the other. Calling it a principle is possible if there is some goodness, perpetual sense (like the principles of war or principles of leadership). Principles can be rephrased or a more current / better word used, but the essence does not really change. If it is a policy, then it must be administratively backed up by a Service HQ order, Navy Order, MOD or CCS/ ACC letter as applicable. If it is the law, then it must be approved by Parliament, as in Regs for the Navy, Articles of War, etc. Selection of chiefs since 1947 has no such ‘quote authority’ back up and custom cannot be taken beyond a reason.
    I agree on the point of Grace by a board in informing in a more transparent manner. But, I don’t see it really as a factor at this stage when one among a few CINCs has to be selected. Within our Services, however, grace sometimes is absent because guilt at presiding over a level of injustice, manoeuvreing by the chairman and some members prevents them for showing the grace in informing. What can they say if they cannot look at the officer/ officers set aside in the eye at all? Ultimately, in any hierarchy, morality in the best sense of the word has to be the guiding principle in evaluations, reporting chains, discussions in a board which reinforces confidence that justice was and is being done always and every time. Grace in informing and accepting becomes that much the easier even at the first selection rank disappointment that most officers face in our pyramid.
    At the same time, no matter how much disappointment an individual may feel, grace should be a factor even in seeking a ROG via the correct steps, and there is little need to try and get to the next step etc after that. Just my two pennies worth for you blog! Something to chuckle about: “Amazing grace” could move beyond Beating Retreat cermonies?

  2. Well articulated sir! But the dilemma is (with no contextual relevance) – to not give in to injustice versus gracefully accepting what’s not meant to be and moving on?

  3. Very well articulated sir. Once panel is made, seniority ceases to be a selection criteria. Need to respect govts decision with dignity & grace.

  4. The concept of seniority in the armed forces is a nearly sacred and easily misunderstood by those who don’t relate to it. Even a day senior or equal seniority but the sequence of names appearing in the list can change the fortunes! It is for this very reason Services allow an officer to take premature retirement if he/she is superceded, thus respecting the basic concept of seniority.
    Thanks for treating such a delicate subject with finesse and due sensitivity. The simile of ‘snakes and ladder’ to ‘compulsory wait’ is interesting!!
    While supersession is a well accepted ‘norm’ in the armed forces, but sometimes the present system of selection gives a feeling of ‘winner takes it all’. Can we do something about it!

  5. Brilliant Dasu , as mentioned by others everybody does get superseded at some stage or the other , so why not take it in a good stride , of course one does feel that he’s the most competent but … we all have been through it – part of the System

  6. Thank you for the informed responses. This subject is topical and the content has been kept generic with a view to present a balanced view without taking sides. I would greatly appreciate if references to any particular Service or person are avoided.

  7. It’s the perogative of the government of the day to choose a Chief from the panel which has been spread before them….I am sure due diligence is exercised and all pros and cons are discussed before shortlisting a candidate…The logic remains the same as in case of selection at lower echelons…….So Why the fuss of supersession?

  8. Well expressed article. Supersession is inescapable as it will happen only when and at which level it occurs varies. The authority (whether a single person or a panel) deciding whether you go up or out does that for various reasons based on inputs available to it. At times a forced decision matrix is used and likely to throw up a result contrary to general expectation

  9. Great points sir. I agree that once a panel has been created for selection, then the powers that be must hv the freedom to choose anyone in that panel. Else of what purpose is the whole process anyway? Graciously accepting ones fate either by acquiescing or resigning ones commission has always been the service tradition. Legal wrangling only brings the service into disrepute and unfortunately the Navy is the one that first started this unhappy trend. Hope better sense prevails always!

  10. Very well articulated Sir. The ‘system’ must be respected for its wisdom and decisions must be accepted with grace.

  11. Well written
    The role of seniority in the armed forces is the basis of all other traits developed in us to be able to deliver in combat

    However, it is ironic that the government can set aside such a critical aspect with impunity. Indeed , they have been doing that regularly, if senior positions other than the Chiefs are considered

    I feel it is well past the time that there is a pushback from the services on some of these issues. Instead of dealing with issues which are the symptoms (NFU, OROP etc) we have to address the integration of armed forces with government, so that our requirements are understood clearly and ad hoc decisions by non specialists are eliminated

    Easier said than done. Pushback requires a backbone…….

  12. One has to find a totally different way to select service chiefs. There has to b a surprise element in the process of selection. Supersession at times helps. A sure shot chief by virtue of seniority is a good hunting ground for subordinates for flattery. Much in advance of his promotion, officers align themselves with this ‘ sure shot chief ‘. On the other hand if seniority is not maintained then MOD exercises its discretion. This only means favouritism at the highest level. I would still prefer latter as this wil keep junior officers clean and they would work for service and not for the “sure shot chief”

    1. The sovereign and the will of a democratically elected government is supreme nobody can and nobody should get into this debate .
      However commanders in chief from the time of Alexander , Pompeei , Caesar , Emperor Ashoka were also the sovereign . India has a poor historical connect with its defence forces as we have been ruled by Hitites, Turks , Afghans Sassanids, Kushanas , Mongols British , French , Portuguese . Interestingly the soldiers and most generals were Indians in preindependnce states . Unlike Pakistan defence forces which has had a history of being interventionist , India has been completely insulated . However Indian governments have perceived Indian military to be an instrument of a foreign force controlling the many preindependence states of this country and has an unnecessary uncomfortable sense about it . In the same spirit akin to a best practice at army / airforce / naval commander level respect for seniority is prudent even if it means absorbing a all party consensus in promotion akin to the CBI chief . Reading about the Turks / Germans / Chinese / Russian / Italian armies and their history has left me with a sense of unease of influencing positions after army commander level because history tends to rhyme when people know the System can be gamed .Defence services are weapons of last resort unlike the police which can Influence day to day in your face living . It’s best to keep them busy in training and out of affairs of the country . However view points will and should differ

  13. Very true. Seniority in itself is a qualification – a trait among men who are treated as equals, as brothers in arms. Achilles despite being the best was never the commander of the Greeks as he lacked seniority. The last we can pray is that favouritism may never be a cause for superseded appointments – that would be even worse

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