Soldier, heal thyself - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 5 April 2010

Soldier, heal thyself

India's new Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), General VK Singh, has promised to focus on the "internal health" of the Indian Army. He has his task cut out for him.

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 6th Apr 10

Figuring out the state of an army’s morale is easy. All it takes is a couple of drinks with two groups of people: the officers and the enlisted men. If the chatter is mainly about sports and professional competitions; ongoing training; and about how much tougher and smarter they are than their rival units, morale is high. On the other hand, if talk centres on pay and allowances; promotions and postings; and on the world outside the army, you can bet money that morale is low. Applying this yardstick to the Indian Army I believe the morale of officers is low, while that of the jawans is high.

In this gloomy assessment I have illustrious company. The new Chief of Army Staff, General VK Singh, on assuming office on the 1st of April, has wisely identified the army’s “internal health” as his key focus. Pointing out that an internally vibrant army would easily swat aside external threats, the army chief has promised to revitalize traditions, core values and the army’s ethos.

Earlier chiefs, some as well-intentioned as General VK Singh, have embarked on similar paths. General K Sundarji, on taking over as chief in 1986, wrote to army officers individually, urging them to follow their professional convictions and promising to tolerate dissent. But that led nowhere as actions failed to follow words. Today, as the new chief implicitly accepts, the army has become a personality cult where officers either conform to the inclinations of the boss or get weeded out. Originality and eccentricity, those priceless attributes of a successful military leader, have been rendered extinct by a dull, humourless routine that is set --- Congress Party fashion --- by what the boss thinks his boss wants.

Keeping the officers in line is a terrible God called the Annual Confidential Report before which even the brightest and most capable officer must kneel or be scythed down. While annual reports are an evaluation tool in many professions, the army has accorded the ACR absolute control of an officer’s career. Considering that this primacy is born of the army’s laudable quest for an impartial, empirical evaluation system, it is ironic that the ACR has turned into a monster of subjectivity. If the boss is unhappy with an officer --- for any reason whatsoever --- a single lukewarm ACR can sink a brilliant career.

Dismantling this tyranny, and unlocking the potential of his officer corps, is the task ahead for General VK Singh. This is easier said than done. Blocking any radical change is the tribal ethos of the Indian Army. An officer belongs first to his regiment or battalion; only after that is he an Indian Army officer. An army chief’s first duty is towards the regiment and battalion that nurtured him; reforming the army conflicts with the role of regimental patriarch.

When General JJ Singh, an infantry officer from the Maratha Light Infantry, took over as chief, the honour guard that welcomed him to South Block was from the Marathas. So was his aide-de-camp and most of his personal staff. During his term Army Headquarters strengthened the infantry-friendly promotion policies of his infantry predecessors. The tenure of his artillery successor, General Deepak Kapoor, saw the Corps of Artillery quickly muscling out the infantry as the flavour of the month. Promotion policy tilted in favour of the artillery. Upwardly mobile artillery officers were quickly posted into friendly environments, under “friendly” superiors, to ease their paths towards higher rank.

These are only the most recent examples of the army’s longstanding patriarchal tradition that General VK Singh can now embrace or dismantle. A key step would be the creation of a clearly enunciated promotion policy, printed as a manual and sanctioned by the government, to ensure that each successive chief cannot tinker with the policy to suit his constituency. Today, 63 years after independence, the military has no promotion manual; policy exists only in a constantly revised torrent of letters from the Military Secretary’s branch.

The other major change that General VK Singh could implement is the reversing of promotion quotas to higher rank: the “Mandalisation” of the army as it is evocatively referred to. From the institution of the Prussian General Staff in the early eighteenth century, professional militaries have employed the criterion of merit alone to select their senior command. For over half a century, so did the Indian Army; but recently, in a burst of patrimonial fervour, quotas were instituted to ensure that each combat arm got its share of the senior ranks. Initiated by artillery and infantry chiefs to safeguard the interests of their officers, the quotas are now favouring less talented officers of other arms.

Few chiefs would voluntarily divest themselves of power but, paradoxically, the institution of the COAS would be greatly strengthened by transparency and the absence of discretion in promotions and postings. It would also free army chiefs from accusations of prejudice; a lever that MoD officials --- and in one well-known case, a defence minister --- have successfully employed to demand favours for their own candidates.


  1. Ajai, on a tangential node, we have this article relevant to Indian defence:

  2. Beautiful article, very well written Ajai

    - Akash

  3. I hope that this COAS is able to make some badly needed structural changes in our Army. However, I have some serious doubt about his ability to make these changes under the great Def Min Shri AK Anthony. Every chief keeps on parroting about changes and modernization of Army but nothing ever gets done. Indian Army is still stuck in 1970s give or take a few years.

  4. really? you had to take a picture of the COAS from a chinese military website?

  5. Anonymous 12:59:



  6. why talk of higher ranks,the mandal commission starts from rank of Col itself where there is great disparity in the number of vacancies for infantry and arty vis a vis rest of the army.60% vis a vis 25-30% for children of lesser god.Earlier there was seniority protection to officers promoted later due to disparity of number of vacancies,that too is sadly compromised in favour of infantry.15 years to almost 19 years for the rest.

  7. Hi Ajay,

    I agree with you most of the time and it the same today in so far as reforming the Career Management of Officers is concerned. Once we have `soldier friendly system in place other aspects like promotion automatically fall in place. We need to nurture soldierly ethos, that is, professional competence (10%)and character (90%).
    I think only way to define `merit' is through combat-effectiveness. We can not on one hand claim that present ACR system is bad and then claim that officers of certain arm (who by and large earned inflated CRs in olden times) were better.

  8. not a question of being a traitor, but just looks weird. besides, how did the chinese website get vk singhs photo, my guess is they took a photo off the net, and put their stamp on it..typical chinese behaviour..

  9. Ajai sir nice article,

    just one point everyone prefers to work with those they are comfortable with. So if a IA chief brins in people from his own area it doesnt matter.

    What matters is the willingness of UA chief to bring in transparency, accoutability, in the working of 1 million plus men.

    IA chief shuold try to get them better trained and reduce their psychological burden that leads them to suicide.

    By the way would be nice if i see any article from on the recent cyber attack by China.


    joydeep ghosh

  10. Ajai sir,

    As usual, well said. I have taken your post as a starting point and expanded on 'Mandalisation' here.

  11. Why cant the Indian government risr a Auxiliary Air Force to deal with the internal threats & to support the paramilitary forces?

    There seems to be a provision for that

  12. Good article. Can we have your definition of 'merit'?? At the entry level an equitable share of merit is distributed to all arms and services. How come some arms become devoid of merit when it come to higher ranks and how does merit gets concentrated in some arms or services ; particularly the ones that do not face actual day to day adversity and dangers and deprivation

    If these arms and services due to the comparaitvely easier time that they have are able to cultivate 'merit' for higher ranks then they must be lauded

    But why should not the arms which face the brunt and actual daily combat and who fail to cultivate the 'merit' which is required for higher ranks be compensated for the handicap

    If an arm and service which actually is fighting the war,after being posted with similar population of officers ends up with lesser percentage of oficers who are thought to be "merited" enough to hold higher ranks , this is a real malady and must be investigated. Either the condition of service of this arm( inf) are inimical to blossoming of 'merit' or the concept of merit is corrupted in favour of other arms where such merit blossoms easily.

    May we have your comments on this

  13. There is a long-standing & suppressed demand for including mutual assessment by peers & subordinates in the appraisal process. This has been stymied repeatedly by the brass-hats who see a threat to their actual worth & power to decide career progression.

    Another emerging (& proliferating) trend is that of hanging onto coat-tails of a superior & following him up the ladder - sort of 'piggy-backing' to professional ascent. The Army is replete with such 'hangers-on' who are today three-star generals (with more on the way) thanks to a lifelong association with a superior where ACRs were taken care of. What galls me is that once an officer is identified as 'meritorious' or 'professionally eminent', he is never tested in professionally challenging circumstances. Officers (Colonels) who undergo the Higher Command / Higher Defence Management Courses look for desk jobs (on staff) under favourable appraisal and/or
    administrative environments where risks of disclosure of professional (in)competence & impotency/acumen are minimal. And once these 'jockeys' ride out the minimal required staff tenures they opt for 'study leave' rather than risk another exposure to a potentially adverse (honest) appraisal & instead await promotional boards to work their magic.

    There was a time when the high-fliers (by ACR ratings), & the professional demons (by course
    gradings) & the 'brahmins' from Higher Command / Long Defense Management Course / National Defense College were put through a second command tenure in areas of counter-insurgency & adverse operational conditions to test their true mettle. Nowadays the output from these pinnacle-courses go occupy desks & revel in 'making-it'. The ground soldiers plod on in ignominy quite like the
    worker ants in an ant colony; the 'elite' professional swingers are the 'drones' that fertilise
    the Queen... (delightful, though unintended hometruths there!)

    I wonder why such courses are called the Higher Command course etc., when their product is a staff officer - a babu in OGs - & not a commander of any kind.

    Till we actually test the product of our pinnacle-courses I assure you that we continue to nurture
    & promote officers who are patrons of moral turpitude, professional shams, sheltered tenures, inflated appraisals & sycophancy.

    I hate to admit it but another round with Pakistan will unearth the true capabilities of our
    officer cadre with the exception of the subalterns who are a proud saving grace (yet!). Taking on
    a larger enemy may shame the Nation as a whole but a tryst with the Pakis will be a self-containing spring-cleaning excercise. You have to see the s*#t that we carry.....

    Please check out the article at it's a revelation & the Utopia that I seek.

    The new COAS (God bless the man) will do no more or less than his predecessors - and the Army doesn't expect him to. He will perpetuate the RAJPUT regiment because he is expected to & he can. He will be unable to change even a wee bit of the rot that has set in because he is not expected to and he can't - its too lucrative & self-sustaining. Why ..... because Peter Principle meets Newtonian Inertia !

  14. Ajai!! Waiting. For the definition of merit. Since you all have brought this in punlic domain- wonder what is the motive- you must answer this since your whole concept hinges on this one word MERIT. So lets have it in lucid terms

  15. people clamouring for merit will do well to define it themselvs.A study on most of so called leaders in adverse conditions will reveal that it is those who have been not in regimental appointments are the ones grabbing the pie.I feel that one should go and see in actual ops areas and see that other are also leading their men in really adverse conditions.So just hypothesising when war will take place and men will be led as a reason for hogging all the seats doesnt cut.In that case an officer or men of asc delivering ammunition to forward locations is at more risk or a person from arty sitting way behind?

  16. Anon@15.38. Thank God you said an ASC fellow faces more risk than the arty fellow . And what is the definition of merit and why are you scirting it. Yes those who are cloamouring for merit should define it. Why no clarification on it even after lengthy multi paged lamenting ???

  17. I have long advocated that once an officer reaches the General cadre he must carry all arms - whom he starts commanding- with him. He is the leader for each and every soldier irrispective of the arm he comes from. He must see the army in the larger frame and not through narrow Regimental outlook. Nothing can be worse for the morale of the Army than for the soldier to feel that he will not get a fair deal under a commander because of his Arm. Hence the commander should not only be impartial in his actions, but be seen to be so. In the pre-Independence Army, and even till the eighties, a General officer had to shed all distinguishing accoutrements of his Corps/Regiment from his dress to imphasise this point, and the same must be strictly adhered to today. The higher ranks in the army must earn undiluted loyalty from all arms and services by binding them in a solid whole.

  18. PackLeader says...

    What a laugh! Ajay Shukha and goon company concerned about the Army's Morale? Ha ha.

    What about Mr Shukla & Co doing the following:

    - Not projecting Army officers and their intentions in extremely poor light, like he did in his article "The T-90 tank: Piercing the army's armour of deception"

    - Not letting less-than-half-informed "enthusiasts" comment endlessly on the Army and it's policies.



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