Our Harmed Forces: ‘Merit’ Principle Is Dangerous: Don’t let politics enter that domain

Source: TOI

Relevance:  Selection for top military posts, issues of merit over seniority.

Synopsis: The Current system of promotion and advancement employed by the military is fair and based on merit. An analysis of the current system and potential implications of changing it.

Significance of a fair promotion system

It is vital for services to ensure that the system of promotions and advancement is as just, fair and transparent as possible, so that the rank and file remain confident that the leaders they unquestioningly follow deserve the position they have attained.

Existing methodology
  • The military has a very fair methodology for selection of officers for promotion from the rank of Colonel to General (and equivalents in other services). There’s a fierce competition and stringent selection criteria, resulting in 60-70% of officers not making the cut.
  • Promotion boards, convened periodically for placing officers on a ‘select list’ for promotion to ranks of Colonel and above, examine only annual confidential reports rendered periodically on candidates.
    • ACRs contain numerical gradings for a number of attributes, as well as a ‘pen picture’ that describes the individual’s qualities for the board and substantiates the grading.

‘Merit’, therefore, remains the sole criterion for the selection process by which a batch of 100 officers may be reduced to 10-12 by the time they reach 3-star rank.

Current system is fair

The current system of promotion to higher military ranks is based on the principle of seniority-cum-merit. As pointed out above, it consists of repeated screening of officers on the basis of merit alone. Therefore, the handful who remain and survive to reach top echelons are of uniformly high caliber.

Choosing the senior-most, by date of promotion to his present rank (not by date of birth or date of commission), has, therefore, proved a ‘safe bet’ for decades.


Areas that need reform:

  • Written remarks for changing gradings: An issue of unhappiness arises from the fact that the service chiefs are entitled to have the last say as far as ACRs of 2- and 3-star rank officers are concerned. This is quite appropriate, but they too, must provide full justification, via written remarks, for changing earlier gradings.
  • There’s also a need to bring uniformity in personnel policies of the three services.
Implications of a changed methodology

A deep-selection methodology, overlooking seniority and based on some other definition of ‘merit’, must be weighed against these drawbacks:

  1. The selected would consider himself obligated to the politico-bureaucratic establishment, undermining his own credibility within the service
  2. Political polarization: high-level military decisions may be biased to please politicians. Political polarization, if allowed to take place in the military, would create deep fissures within the officer corps – eventually infecting the rank and file.


The public respects the military for its apolitical and non-partisan conduct. But if the citizens perceive it as just another interest-group seeking to promote itself, that respect will soon vanish.

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