There will be few “takers” for the defence minister’s line (indeed there are not many who endorse Manhohar Parrikar’s security-related formulations) that there is no need for the appointments of Service Chiefs to be announced well in advance since the choice would be from among the senior-most officers: hence a well-qualified person would attain the top slot. For that would be trivialising established institutional protocols and systems, and while the leadership of the BJP makes a virtue of not being imprisoned by traditional practices, tinkering with conventions and norms can have a negative fall-out, at least on the rest of the Service.
The Army and Air Force Chiefs are due to retire at the end of the month, in normal course their successors would have been announced by now, and the incoming Chiefs given adequate time to facilitate a smooth change of guard as well as fashion their own support squads. The government must appreciate that the “new” Chiefs will have to “learn the ropes”, particularly how to effectively deal with both the bureaucratic and political leadership. Alas, Service Chiefs — unlike ministers — are not blessed with the overnight wisdom that enables a minister with a new portfolio to make policy pronouncements even before occupying the gaddi. It is quite a different story when moving from information and broadcasting to law, and then finance — and at times displaying the professional ineptitude that creates a situation like the current cash crunch.
The delay in the announcements has fanned avoidable speculation that the generally-honoured “seniority” system is being dispensed with — and the manner in which the top appointment in the Central Bureau of Investigation has been handled has caused many a tongue to wag. That means that a certain cloud will hang over the next man appointed and elevated to four-star status. Questions will quietly be asked if he was not the “first” choice, or if the government had entertained certain reservations. Not an ideal situation for a top military commander, his authority must not be doubted when he assumes his new role.
There is also some “buzz” that the system of higher defence management is being revamped — in itself not a bad move, particularly if it means a switch to a Chief of Defence Staff system (as has been recommended by several experts). Yet such a switch would bear fruit only if adequate preparation has been made and a general political consensus been attained. It would be unfair on the head of a revised system to “throw him into the deep end”, for this is not a decision to be taken on the basis of a majority in Parliament. The fauj deserves better.