Each of the 20 men who have served as chief of air staff since 1947 has been a fighter pilot. No government rule mandates that the IAF’s top post be manned by a fighter pilot; yet right from Air Marshal Thomas Walker Elmhirst, independent India’s first air chief, down to the current man in office, Air Chief Marshal Shashi Tyagi, they have been fighter pilots all. It has been the done thing and the promotion system has ensured that fighter pilots are lined up for the top spot, time and time again. Until now.
The succession question in the IAF has simmered for more than a year now, with the battle lines between fighter pilots and ‘other’ streams clearly drawn for what was, one way or the other, going to be a controversial decision by the government. The fighter mob, as we defence correspondents like to call them, lobbied carefully, ingratiating itself nimbly with an establishment that doesn’t know its front from its back. The ‘other’ streams were too scattered for any organised lobbying, so they stood back and held their breaths. And in the end that seemed to work.
The three officers who stood to gain from Air Marshal Major’s seniority being overlooked by the government are fighter pilots. Air Marshals P.K. ‘Polly’ Mehra, B.N. ‘Bingo’ Gokhale and P.S. ‘Pudding’ Ahluwalia all have fine careers behind them. And with rumours that the government would bend to the fighter lobby, each one of these officers had a shot at becoming chief. Yet, somewhere in the massive promotions machinery that propels our huge and unwieldy armed services onwards, someone either goofed up and deep-selected a helicopter pilot for the top job, or simply – and I like to think this is the truth – consciously questioned an old tradition.
In one sense, the government’s decision is not surprising. It was always unlikely that the establishment was going to tinker too much with seniority, even though it has done so before. Defence Minister A.K. Antony himself, when called upon for his opinion, is known to have said that rules were rules. The IAF remembers, and always with a shudder, the all-out revolt that was sparked in 1997 when pay scales were altered to steeply favour fighter pilots as compared to the other streams. It was a time when Mulayam Singh Yadav, then defence minister, had to hold a press conference to offset the damage caused by anguished non-fighter pilots who leaked negative stories about the service with aplomb when they were not hurling rocks at establishment buildings.
In an interview to The Indian Express in July 2006, Air Chief Marshal S.P. Tyagi put it this way, “If the government were to ask me my opinion on the matter, I would be deeply embarrassed.” This was a genuine sentiment, even though Tyagi has been known to wonder how a man who cannot, as per the rules, command the Western or South Western Command by virtue of not being a fighter pilot, can be eligible for the position of chief of air staff.
Obviously the government’s decision has ruffled feathers among fighter pilots and, ironically, a decision that is just and fair and by the rules may only serve to deepen the schism. There are those who have suggested that it is preposterous that a helicopter pilot can command an air force, especially when choppers are mostly used in the IAF in logistics and support roles. Others assert that fighter pilots have a tunnel vision of operations and are therefore unfit to sit on the throne at Vayu Bhawan.
And there are still others who find both of these views ludicrous. It is the vice chief, they say, who really runs the show – the chief of air staff simply takes policy decisions and is an umbrella power over a complex network of roles performed by those under him. Unfortunately, all of these opinions are only half true.
And the government, to its credit, has recognised that none of these views is completely true. It also remembers 1997, and has decided to go with the safer option. Nobody wants another controversy of this kind in the air force.