Of late, a lot of ink has been spilled on the subject of promotions in Defence in the officer cadre, an issue hardly spoken about in the past. Should it be Merit-based or Seniority alone or Merit-Based Seniority? Was it ever only Seniority Based? Can all ranks from Lieutenant to Lieutenant General and their equivalents in Air Force and Navy be treated with the same broad swipe policy? Determination of Merit amongst same seniority officers, can the exercise be totally purged of subjectivity? If not, can it lead to warts of politicization? These are some ponderables that require comprehension of the existing system of promotions which is not perfect but has stood the test of time.
First, the promotions from Lt to Lt Col (and equivalents), are almost totally non-controversial since these are Time Scale, ie automatic time-bound if the professional qualifications and discipline criteria are met. Then come the selection grade ranks from Col (and equivalents) onwards. Here one needs to understand the basic system; firstly there is a seniority of each officer fixed based on merit in the training academy at the time of Commissioning of his course as an officer and secondly, there is a calendar year batch of officers getting commissioned in the same calendar year. The inter se batch seniority (within a calendar year) is fixed based on the sequence of courses getting Cadets commissioned in a year and the within course seniority which is purely merit-based depending upon the Cadet’s assessed performance during training. This inter se calendar year batch seniority of officers remains sacrosanct throughout the career of an officer with very few exceptions which may include a disciplinary award.
Next, the system of Selection Grade promotions (Cols onwards and equivalents) involves consideration of one Calendar Year Batch at a time in Army (with some variations in other Service). However, a Promotion Board considers officer candidates within a batch, purely on assessed merit and available vacancies; at this stage, the inter- se batch seniority is not considered at all. The results are promulgated accordingly; the only heartburn being that the vacancies in the pyramidical structure of ranks in Defence leave very few opportunities in each higher rank and almost 70% of officers get left out at each stage. Then comes the placements/appointments of officers empanelled for the next rank and here the sequence is based on their calendar batch seniority. Thus, it can be inferred that promotions to higher selection grade ranks are purely based on assessed merit, only placements of these empanelled officers are based on inter se batch seniority. Appears a perfectly legitimate and balanced system but for the complexities which appear in the rank of General Officers which needs examination.
The promotions in each selection grade rank are based on Promotion Boards constituted purely within the Service, ie Army/AF/Navy with the Ministry of Defence only retaining an oversight. However, for the rank of General Officers (and equivalents), ratification is done by the Central Govt and appointments are approved by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC). The promotion system remains merit-based, as outlined above, except that the appointments in the rank of Lt Gen (and equivalents) for the officers of General Cadre and for Heads of Arms and Service are now based on residual service criteria. This implies that for certain appointments to be tenated, the incumbent should have a minimum of three years’ service left in the promoted rank, for some other appointments like Heads of Arms & Service as well the exalted appointment of Army Commander, minimum 18 months of Service should be balance. For all those, meeting the residual service criteria, placements are made accordingly, based on their seniority, with the appointments subject to ratification by ACC. In cases where residual service criteria is not met, the General Cadre officer is surely promoted but given some other appointments, where residual service criteria is not applicable. It is only here that the proponents of an out and out merit system may claim that residual service criteria should not be applied and placements made based on merit alone. But this may lead to very short tenures in critical appointments and induce instability in the system which national security can ill afford. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court can have a one month tenure but can an Army Commander with the extremely onerous responsibility of the defence of a vast geographical region (bigger than many nations) be thrust with a short tenure and expected to do justice to his role?
This leaves us with the final two apex ranks, ie Chiefs of Service (Army, AF and Navy) and the newly created appointment of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). For the selection of Chiefs of Service, a panel of eligible officers is made and placed before the Central Govt. The Govts have mostly followed the seniority principle here, with a few exceptions which are well known; The unstated underpinning being that at this stage there is nothing to separate the candidates in terms of merit, all are equally competent. This methodology of the following seniority at the apex level has another advantage that politicization at the Chief level, which is totally undesirable, is entirely shut out. However, this does not dilute the prerogative of Govt to choose the Chiefs, based on the 360-degree inputs and the national security perspective they have.
For any promotion system to stand the test of time, it has to be rule-based. Of course, the rules cannot be permanent and there is always scope of refinement of rules based on the organizational development, prevalent wargame doctrine, HR aspects and technological developments. There is no doubt that the promotion system in Defense is rule-based. Whether it is totally fair and merit-based depends upon how the rules-based promotion is implemented, ie without favour or fervour and political interference in higher ranks. The merit-based system is itself based largely on multiple annual reports which can never claim to be fully objective, given the human imperfections; it never is, nowhere is. Thus, there has to be a subtle difference between a promotion system being fair and it being merit-based. One may claim that the system is not entirely fair, a pointer being the increasing trend of litigation in cases of promotions and adverse comments from Courts/Tribunals. This is always exacerbated due to large scale supersessions in each rank which are inevitable in Defence due to the acute pyramidical structure.
Thus, it is evident that promotion to Selection Grade ranks, Col (and equivalents) onwards, Merit (though a somewhat subjective exercise), remains the leitmotif, while the sequence of placements of empanelled officers is based on their inter-se seniority. However, the Merit-Based System of Defense comes under stress and scrutiny only for higher ranks, mainly at the level of Lt Gens (and equivalents) and Chiefs. The Debate of Merit vs Seniority in these ranks is largely inconsequential as long as there is no politicization of promotion to these ranks and their appointments. It is pertinent to note that the Forces owe allegiance to the Constitution of India only and have remained apolitical over the years. Within the apolitical and democratic framework, the Govt cannot be denied its prerogative of approving the appointments of Senior Officers and choosing the Chiefs. It is only when supersessions occur once too often or the talk of merit-based deep selection emerges (based on an incorrect appreciation of rule-based promotion system in Defence Forces), murmurs of politicization emerge. It is nobody’s case that the politicization of Defence Forces isn’t dangerous to the security and welfare of the nation. It always is.