|CURRENT ISSUE NOVEMBER 22, 2004|
|DEFENCE: INDIAN AIR FORCE|
|A Question of Honour |
A Delhi High Court verdict severely indicting the Indian Air Force's promotional policy for senior officers puts the entire selection process in jeopardy and casts aspersions on the brass
|By Raj Chengappa|
As an ace pilot, Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy was recognised for having what is known as "the right stuff". When he took over as the air chief in December 2001, it was expected that given his credentials he would take measures to boost the spirit of excellence and give the Indian Air Force (IAF) a higher profile in India's force structure. Within months, Krishnaswamy pushed through a radically new promotion policy for officers that placed greater emphasis on merit than on seniority. It was directed towards infusing younger blood into the top echelons and widening the search base for talent especially among the brass. Instead of just going by the grading based on annual appraisal reports and on medical fitness tests, Krishnaswamy got the Ministry of Defence to approve a policy that entrusted the Promotion Board with a weightage system-which gave it a large dose of discretionary powers-for the ranks of air commodores, air vice-marshals and air marshals.
Under the new promotion policy which came into force on March 15, 2002, while marks derived from annual appraisal reports were given an 80 per cent weightage, the board for senior officers could allot the remaining 20 per cent. The board, consisting of the air chief and the senior-most air marshals, would allot marks based on their judgement of the candidate's capability on 24 traits. These were grouped broadly under employability, leadership, personality and the potential to hold the responsibility of the next higher rank. It tilted the balance decisively in favour of the board. The policy also stipulated that at least three candidates should be vetted for every senior post.
It was expected that the policy would be met with some resistance. But two years later and barely a month and a half from his retirement, Krishnaswamy finds that he faces severe flak for his actions. On November 8, the Delhi High Court, acting on writ petitions filed by Air Vice-Marshals Harish Masand and T.S. Chhatwal, passed an unprecedented judgement severely indicting the IAF for its 2002 promotional policy, terming it "irrational, arbitrary and unreasonable". It quashed the February 2003 appointments of four new air marshals. These were posts that both Masand and Chhatwal had been in the running for but had lost out because the board's discretionary weightage system went against them.
The court ordered that a Special Promotion Board be convened within a month to reassess the candidates according to a revised promotional policy which the Defence Ministry had enforced in March this year. Under this policy, the weightage for the board's marks had been reduced from 20 to 5 per cent. Coming down on the IAF brass, the court observed, "The treatment meted out to the petitioner is a classic case of indifference, high-handedness, arbitrariness, irrationality and amounts to colourful exercise of powers and manipulations to deny promotions." A delighted Chhatwal, one of the petitioners, said, "It's a vindication of our stand. But the battle is not over."
Chhatwal's instincts are right. For as retired air vice-marshal Kapil Kak points out, "The court order is not just an indictment of the IAF alone but the whole system, which includes the Defence Ministry and the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet which approved the policy." The Defence Ministry has already decided to file a special leave petition in the Supreme Court seeking to quash the judgement. The Government's senior counsel Pinky Anand, among other things, will argue that the high court should have confined itself to examining whether due process had been observed in the selection rather than trashing the entire promotional policy. Despite the setback in the high court, Anand remains confident that there is enough evidence to show that the air force brass had acted without any malafide intention and there is no case for reversing the Promotion Board's decision.
It won't be easy going though for the Government in the Supreme Court. Air Vice-Marshal Masand had successfully argued in the high court that his track record as a fighter pilot was impeccable.
Based on the marks given for annual appraisals he was ranked first among the 15 candidates vying for the four posts of air marshals in February 2003. But when the board met, its discretionary marks pushed him down to seventh position, denying him a promotion. The high court remained unconvinced with the Government's argument that Masand had faced three censures involving flying indiscipline and misappropriation of funds which earned him a lower rating.
In Chhatwal's case, though he did not figure on top in the appraisal scores, he was able to show that the Defence Ministry had tampered with a key appraisal report that could have boosted his chances. "We are confident that the high court order would be upheld," says Keshav Kaushik, the advocate for the two petitioners. What has helped the two air vice-marshals in their case was that the Defence Ministry appeared divided over the promotional policy. The internal tussle saw the percentage of discretionary marks awarded by the board reduced under a new policy this year. The high court had reproduced some of the damaging observations made by key Defence Ministry officials in its judgement. The apex court is likely to consider this.
Meanwhile, the high court verdict has opened a legal Pandora's box. It puts the position of the four air marshals appointed as per the 2002 rules in jeopardy. Besides, Masand has since retired. It has also put the IAF's entire promotional policy for senior officers in turmoil. "It is damaging and sad," says air chief marshal (retired) A.Y. Tipnis. The same sentiment is shared by S.K. Sareen, another former air chief, who feels that the IAF should not have "fiddled" with the original policy itself.
The real concern is that the verdict may embolden more officers to seek remedy in courts, leading to demoralisation and chaos. Kak suggests that the Defence Ministry should establish Appellate Tribunals to handle such cases rather than civil courts. Everyone is now looking towards the Supreme Court for wisdom.