Defence forces have always been an attraction as a career option. Apart from the lure of wearing the uniform, it is the pride and faith of the Nation that makes it so. In the 60s, the master guides and magazines, then available, always had a suggested question wherein the candidate would be asked, why the Forces and not the Police, the winning answer invariably was the pride of joining the Forces to fight for the country, leaving policing to lesser mortals.
Let’s see, how those who join the Army progress in their career (Situation in the Navy and Air Force would be more or less similar). Here are some statistics that are useful. NDA is without doubt the premier institution for training of those desirous of making it as officers in the three services. Entrance exams for NDA are conducted by the UPSC where candidates in huge numbers apply. In 2020 for example, for a Course with a capacity of 300, around 5.3 lakhs applied out of which 2.4 lakhs appeared for the exam. The figures are staggering. No wonder then that entry into the NDA is considered as one of the most competitive.
After such a competitive exam and selection, one would expect that the career progression would be smooth over the years with experience gained while serving in various areas of the country like the other All India Services. But is it so?
The Army structure can be best compared to a pyramid with a huge base. Lieutenants, captains, majors and lieutenant colonels, who constitute almost 85 per cent of the officer cadre, are at the base, promotions to these ranks are generally assured based on years of service. Selections to higher ranks in the 15th or 16th year, kick in from colonel level which is the first select rank. Unfortunately, 50 to 60 percent officers miss the chance to be promoted at the very first step of the selection ladder mainly due to lack of vacancies, not capability and relative merit. Selection to higher ranks is even tougher as the rate of missing out continues.
So what makes one eligible and not another?
Selections are made through selection boards, some call them rejection boards. The inputs to these Boards are performance on courses, honours and awards, disciplinary record and last but the most important, with about 90 percentage weightage is the Annual Confidential Report in which the officers performance and potential for higher ranks is assessed by his superiors up the chain. Every year or more often, the reporting officers award single digit figurative assessment for various attributes of the officer being reported upon, with a highest of 9. These gradings in numbers are awarded for a plethora of attributes some seemingly mundane, others vital. Figurative assessments are based on individual reporting officers who all have their own perceptions on what an officer has demonstrated or has the potential to. Many factors come into play in this, as every assessing officer too has his likes and dislikes, favourites, loyalties and the like. While some are known to be very liberal, some realistic, some are stingy. For example, a very good and capable officer may be rated favourably by a reporting officer while another officer with similar qualifications and attributes may not be awarded similarly by a stingy reporting officer. Therein lies the catch.
With promotions being vacancy and relative merit based in a batch, its all in the numbers that the officer gets in his ACRs. If reports are to be believed, some aren’t approved since their merit is often decided in the second decimal place amongst their batch. Even in cases where all things like courses, postings, tenures etc being equal in an officers profile and record of service, it all boils down to what’s the lucky number that your boss fancies. A lower grading specially in critical years will mar any chances of promotion to higher rank(s) for ever, once awarded its rather difficult to get it set aside.
And why is rank that important? In the Armed Forces, pay and allowances, perks and authority are naturally related to the rank and position held. Unlike the civvy street of the Govt, there’s no NFU or auto upgradation of pay/status with a batch. While the Armed Forces personnel are allowed to carry their ranks by the Constitution even after they retire from active service, while in service or even after retirement, allotment of guest rooms, seating arrangements, entitlement of facilities like canteen institutes etc are all governed by the all-important rank. And for that the boss’s favourite number must tally with your lucky number (9 or as close to it as possible) else, its goodbye to higher ranks even if one is capable.