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 This is not the first time a Service Chief will be superseded and it will not be the last.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