Politics invading the Armed Forces?

"Having personally been a victim of the special promotion board in 2003 for consideration to the rank of Air Marshal and having personally fought the case and won in the Delhi High Court in 2004, I think I am better placed than most to comment on how the system works."

Politics invading the Armed Forces?

A recent article entitled “Politics invading the Armed Forces” by Lt Gen NS Bawa posted on Raksha-Anirveda.com caught my attention, which lead me to this piece. I do not entirely disagree with what General Bawa has projected but, with due respect to his views, would like to submit that the effect of political, as well as bureaucratic, interference essentially starts having serious consequences, like the ones he has highlighted, when the armed forces themselves start playing politics internally and are not transparent and/or unable to defend their policies and decisions. Truly meritorious officers at the higher echelons would be able to prevent inappropriate influence and interference.

Having personally been a victim of the special promotion board in 2003 for consideration to the rank of Air Marshal and having personally fought the case and won in the Delhi High Court in 2004, I think I am better placed than most to comment on how the system works and the measures required to minimize the political interference in our armed forces.

For those interested in the details of the case to understand my suggestions better, the judgment and final order of the Delhi High Court is cited at 2004 VIII AD (DELHI) 429. General Bawa himself supports my arguments when he brings out the case of gunners in the Army, brought about by the internal workings of the organization, thus indirectly inviting political and/or bureaucratic interference.

In my personal opinion, the issues of merit and quality of the officer cadre in the armed forces start at the selection level itself. Since the Indian Army itself is short of some 7000 officers at the junior level, with similar shortfalls in other services as reported in the media, I would presume that only the best are being selected from the available material. After all, it is nobody’s case that there is any outside influence or interference at that level. Whether the best or desirable material is coming forward to join the armed forces is another matter.

This again has to be largely addressed by the armed forces themselves in attracting the right youth of the nation. Some measures, within the terms of reference given to us, to improve the quality of the intake were suggested by me earlier and are available in the Silver Salver Essay in the Staff College Owl magazine of 1982. I would also presume that the armed forces are not compromising or diluting the laid down standards in the selection process just to fill the vacancies.

The next stage is training on which much has already been written and circulated by many senior officers. This area, again, is within the internal control of the armed forces so I would not dwell on it except to hope that we are not compromising on the desired standards in order to just fill the vacancies with marginal cases, which in the long-term only harm the organization.

As a matter of fact, the large number of vacancies can be used to persuade the Government to bring in necessary measures, required of the Government, to attract better quality. Here, I would also include in-service training and courses, which, to some extent along with the grading of the officers in annual reports, determine the future selection, postings, utilization and exposure of the officers as they grow in service.

It is indisputable that selection and promotion in the armed forces should be based on merit so that the best can man important assignments. As General Omar Bradley said a long time ago, “In war, there is no prize for the second best”. It is also indisputable that the true merit and capabilities of the officers in the long-term in any organization can only be assessed from the annual or periodic reports raised on the individual officer. The armed forces, in principle, also accept that the reports must be as objective as possible despite the human subjective element involved in the reporting chain.

Unfortunately, the system has been internally corrupted over the years for a number of reasons by the armed forces themselves that, in turn, invites the political/bureaucratic interference and recourse to judicial review being addressed in these articles. I would, therefore, bring out the lacunae in the present system and processes while suggesting remedial measures, which can be incorporated in-house so that the best finally reach progressively higher appointments. Such meritorious people would automatically be able justify the policies and internal decisions taken as also successfully resist any unwarranted outside interference.

Fortunately, from the beginning the armed forces adopted a numerical system of assessment on a 9-point scale along with a pen-picture to highlight the special qualities, achievements or failures of the officer being reported on. Each trait or quality being assessed is also well-defined in the guide available to every officer and all reporting officers are periodically re-educated on these through appraisal workshops.

Despite such measures, over the years we have corrupted the system to such an extent in most branches and arms, to ensure “our boys” get promoted, that unless an officer has a grading close to 9, even at Lt Col and equivalent level, he/she is unlikely to make the grade for the next promotion. Unfortunately also, despite a system of moderation at higher HQ, such inflated reports still get through.

If one were to objectively compare the grading with the description given in the guide, it would be immediately obvious that almost every officer is exceptional or a genius. When such officers come up for selection or promotion, the Board has no clear merit in front of it and the subjectivity of the Board members now has a free hand to choose almost anyone. Such subjectivity opens the doors for questions and interference even in matters such as postings or placement.

To overcome such subjectivity, which causes much heartburn and leads to pleas of external interference, I would suggest a few simple measures that had been suggested to the Air Force as early as 1994. Unfortunately, these were only partially implemented and thus ineffective. First of all, a self-appraisal, in about one sheet, should be asked for at all levels in each report. Without getting into details, it can be proved that every officer, at any level, should be and is able to describe what he has achieved during the period of report. The Initiating Officer now has a ready reckoner for or against which he assesses the individual, keeping the descriptive guide on traits in mind.

Towards this, I followed and implemented a simple system, at my level and below, of keeping a diary and entering just one or two lines on each person, officer or OR that one had to initiate a report on, after a mandatory interaction at least once a month. At the end of the year, one had a ready pen-picture/profile of the appraisee and did not have to scratch one’s brain to remember everyone’s achievements/failures or just fudge an approximate assessment, particularly when initiating a report on a large number of people.

As a matter of fact, I made it a point to jot down just a brief line on everyone I interacted with even as an RO/SRO to be able to later review the reports more objectively.

With such a system in place, the reports tend to become less subjective and more accurate even at the IO level since the IO has to back everything with facts for or against the self-appraisal. The IO would also find it difficult either to excessively inflate the assessment for those he likes or reduce it for someone he may not like as a person, but who has performed well professionally, since such contradictory assessments would now be very obvious to the RO and SRO.

When viewed against the description of each quality/trait/performance criterion given in the guidelines, such a system, if strictly followed, would tend to minimize subjectivity and over-assessment of personnel at each level, keeping in mind that the person is being assessed at the level of experience and service he/she is at. Along with this, the IAF had a good system for moderation in place that could also be followed in letter and spirit to further reduce subjectivity.

This policy on moderation by higher HQ was essentially based on the law of averages which lays down that the majority of people are average and only a small percentage at each level is in the above the average or exceptional category. Based on this, in the IAF, we had to justify every grading above 7.5 on the 9-point scale with solid facts, particularly if these exceeded a certain percentage, say beyond 10%, of the total number being reported on. Only certain specialized units, which were manned by especially selected personnel, were permitted to grade their people above the laid-down percentage though with facts and justification for each individual.

All such measures to minimize subjectivity tend to even out the reports over the years and by about 10 or more reports on a person moderated at RO, SRO and higher HQ levels, one gets a fairly accurate picture of the person. We also had a system in principle wherein, at Air HQ level, any variation beyond 0.5 from the past average was carefully examined, checked with the lower reporting levels and then corrected, if required.

To be fair to the person being reported on, any likely adverse grading or remarks also had to be communicated to the person well in advance with an opportunity to correct/improve in that particular area. I am hopeful that such a system is being followed in letter and spirit to be fair to the service as well as the individual. In my personal opinion, each individual is invariably quite aware of his own capabilities and actual performance and is quite willing to accept the comparative grading/merit if the assessment system is fair and largely transparent.

By transparency, I do not mean that each report is to be necessarily shown or justified to each individual, as is prevalent in the Army. Such a practice has its own problems and prevents some IOs from a fair assessment, either due to lack of conviction and/or popularity considerations. It could be reiterated here that in any system involving human beings, subjectivity may not be entirely eliminated but can certainly be minimized to a very large extent.

Such measures to make the appraisal system fair with minimal subjectivity can then form the right, and perhaps the only fair, basis for selection and promotion for higher appointments based purely on merit. If considered suitable, a system of awarding some seniority or marks for performance in courses can also be formulated on the lines of the system prevalent in the Navy. Course performance is generally far more accurate, without bias or favoritism, and such an incentive would also encourage people to imbibe more and increase the training value of in-service courses.

Once again, the IAF had finally formulated a good policy in March 2002 for promotions to air ranks based on merit wherein they had inter alia specified in Para 16 of the policy that 80% of the marks would be the average of the numerical grading in last 5/10 reports, depending on the current rank, and the remaining 20%, termed as Board Marks, would be given by each Board member based on four features, employability, leadership, personality and potential for the next higher rank, as discerned from reports raised on the officer in various field and staff appointments held by him in the past.

These four features were later divided in 24 attributes, all of them included in one or more traits already reported on in the ACR except for one of employability, which implied the experience and overall exposure of the officer. In theory, this was the best possible system since the merit was now to be decided from about 25-35 reports with 80% marks for the recent reports and 20% for the older reports as a younger officer. Such a system would have catered for an aberration in the recent reports if a basically meritorious officer had the misfortune of earning a lower grading than he normally did due to any number of reasons. The converse was also catered for in such a policy.

Also, it seemed to cater for the reality that the officer being considered may have never served under some of the Board members, or not known to them, or may have served with them almost as equals where they may have had a disagreement on professional issues or a personal difference. Thus, Board members had to rely on the assessment by those who intimately knew the true performance of the officer and had already penned these assessments in reports.

Unfortunately, it soon became evident that instead of being guided by the past reports and performance, the IAF Board members arbitrarily used these 20% Board marks as discretionary marks without any correlation to the recorded performance in past reports. In my particular case in court, the IAF even claimed that they had destroyed the Board proceedings though these had been examined on file two to three times at MoD level and returned with remarks questioning such arbitrary allocation of Board marks. I was not even aware of such a review and remarks by MoD till these came out in court. A cursory reading of the court order would clearly show the arbitrariness and malafide.

Due to such arbitrariness, the MoD had also forced the IAF to reduce the Board marks to 5% in future. This was interference in reverse to make merit count in promotions. Unfortunately, even in the second Board on me with this ruling, the IAF went to the extent of giving me just around 10% of these 5 Board marks, that is just 0.5 marks, or less than 1 on the scale of 9, just to keep me out of the merit list. As expected, the Supreme Court rejected such a ridiculous and unjustified grading, for someone who had otherwise topped the Board with a margin.

It is also well known, and was so commented on by the court, that after 30-35 years of service and selection at every level, the difference in grading between different officers is in the second place of decimal. Unfortunately, even with 5% Board marks, simple calculations would show that it is still possible to nullify a 0.1 difference in grading by just around 20% variation in allocation of Board marks.

Another lacuna, which ruined a perfectly good policy, was the fixation on considering between 2.5 to 3 officers against one vacancy. This was aggravated by including the people passed over by the previous Boards in two more Boards, with some additional grace marks, thus defeating the very purpose of the merit-based policy of having younger meritorious officers at each level with adequate tenures. This was despite the suggestion that the entire particular year’s batch should be considered in each year of consideration for promotion.

That way, the most meritorious in each batch would rise to a particular rank by a desired length of service thus giving them adequate time to serve at each level before superannuation. By rejecting this suggestion, there had been a clogging in the IAF, as far as I know, and fresh batches were being delayed for consideration, sometimes when they had already reached the age of superannuation. This gave them barely two years to serve in the next higher rank while the first few batches served for many years blocking vacancies.

These two misapplications of a perfectly good policy have robbed the policy of its basic intent and objectives. However, by highlighting these issues, it is hoped that the armed forces would adopt and apply the correct policy in letter and spirit not only to have the most meritorious rise to higher ranks but also to remove the very basis on which grievances arise with possibilities of unwanted outside interference. Through application of the suggested fair and transparent reporting system, the armed forces can also easily identify those who depend on patronage, whether within or outside the service.

Such officers would obviously and progressively get eliminated thus preventing vitiating of the environment at higher levels. Capable and meritorious senior officers would also progressively increase the circles of quality around them and would also be able to resist any undue outside interference. They would also be able to defend the selection and promotions, when required, due to the solid and transparent basis for their decisions and not succumb to unwarranted pressures.

Quite obviously, any good policy takes some time to show effect but it is hoped that within two or three changes of guard, good reporting and selection systems would bring in the desired changes, both in operational effectiveness and HR issues. Also, the system cannot be directly applied at higher levels due to the prevalent aberrations but needs to be initiated at lower levels to start cleaning the system from the bottom.


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