With the demise of General Bipin Rawat, the position of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS)- that Gen. Rawat was the first to be appointed to has become vacant. That empty chair has provided the impetus to much deliberation about what the new CDS must be like, even more discussion about the legacy that General Rawat left behind, and still more debate about the purpose of such a post as well as the politicisation of the armed forces.
In their recent articles in The Print and the Times of India, both Lieutenant General (Dr) Prakash Menon (Retd) and Sanjaya Baru, respectively analyse the increased use of the armed forces for the selfish ends of politicians. The former highlighted Rawat’s tendency to align with the BJP’s ideological bent and make controversial statements. Lt Gen. Menon also pointed to the present situation where posters of the army have been used for elections, and actions like the military cleaning up garbage at Mount Everest and the participation of the air force in the inauguration of an expressway are serving the end of electoral success.
In his article, Baru pointed out how a fear of having a falling out with the government hampered professional assessments of army operations such as “surgical strikes”. He went on to note how there is not enough focus on the politicisation of the military, warning that this “is how the police service has devalued itself.”
Some military veterans agree. Some do not. Brigadier Dara Govadia (Retd) seems to be a part of the former group. Speaking to MVI, he noted, “the Armed Forces are certainly being politicized of late. There is a need for the senior leadership to stand up and be counted. There is a possibility of us becoming as defunct as the Police.”
Lieutenant Colonel MK Gupta Ray (Retd) differs. Talking about the leveraging of defense resources for political purposes, he said, “it cannot possibly be altogether eradicated. At times political purposes may get merged with social needs like the Mumbai commuter overhead railway bridge. Political masters, while giving the order, may have assessed the need of the army making the bridge as a measure of safety to the users and quick response and durability of the said bridges. After all, ultimately expenditure on capital cost will go from the country exchequer whichever department makes the expenses.”
The themes of politicisation of the armed forces and reform of the military structures have become deeply intertwined with the role and conduct of Gen. Rawat as the CDS, which has become the tethering point of the discussion. Agreements and disagreements on all these topics primarily spring from two tangents:
- Is there a necessity for the post of CDS to exist?
- What is the legacy that Gen. Rawat has left behind as the first CDS of India?
It might appear insensitive that such questions, and discussions upon them, are popping up so soon after the General’s death. Commander Ashok Menon (Retd) addressed this, noting “General Rawat's death was sudden and under extremely tragic circumstances. The wound caused as a result - to the Military in general - will take a while to heal. Quite naturally the scars left behind for the immediate family members of all who died in that crash will take much longer. But comments on professional issues - especially that involve military leadership- cannot be held back, despite the cloud of grief that prevails.”
The Controversy of the Appointment & Politicisation
The CDS of the Indian Armed Forces is not only the military head but also the Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (PC-COSC). The CDS is also the head of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA). The officer appointed to this post is a single-point military advisor to the defense minister. The creation of the appointment was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 15th August 2019. However, it was first officially suggested in 1999 post the Kargil Conflict. While some believe that the post of CDS is a necessity, others see it as a poorly thought out move. Brigadier Govind Ilangovan (Retd) spoke to MVI about the need for the appointment. “The Post of CDS was set up after the long-felt need for one, especially in the aftermath of Kargil Conflict and Expert Committee suggestions. So, to say we do not need or want CDS is superfluous,” the Brigadier opined.
He further talked of the need for having the CDS heading the DMA as well. He remarked, “assume that the GOI had appointed an IAS or IPS as Secretary of DMA, people would have shouted hoarse saying their domain has been breached. If the status of the Secretary is low, it could be solved by making it tenable by a Lt Gen. who has commanded a corps. The Additional Secretary could be a Lt Gen. or even a Maj Gen.” Brig. Ilangovan further said that “they should all directly report to the CDS and the CDS should report to the Minister of Defence.”
Lt Col. Gupta Ray echoed a similar sentiment. “Unlike bureaucrats, commanders of the defense forces need to tread a very intricate path. While they bear tremendous responsibility towards troops under their command,” he further added “ they also need to follow orders given by their superiors. Military commanders have to tread a thin line balancing both. It's the individual discretion of the respective commanders about where to cross that without prejudice, and at the same time not become confrontational.”
Insisting on the relationship between the military and the policymakers, he told MVI: “Army Commander and equivalent in other services to COAS and CDS, there may not be many differences in individual capabilities in their respective fields. What matters is the proximity, capabilities, and self-projection of a concerned officer to the policymakers. The post of the CDS is primarily for strategic purposes. CDS will not only have to coordinate the complete defense resources of the inter and intra-services, but he also has to make future strategic plans in conjunction with political masters.”
Commenting on the seemingly bureaucratic nature of the CDS, Col. Rajinder Singh Kushwaha (Retd) said, “What is important is to know what the purpose of the creation of this post of CDS is. Certainly, it was not a ceremonial post or a decorative piece. Did we expect the CDS to be another babu? I am of the opinion that the post of CDS be done away with if it has to continue in its present shape. CDS must not be a Government Secretary but an overlord of all security forces.”
Disagreeing with the argument for the necessity of the appointment of CDS on grounds of greater inter-service cooperation, Group Captain TP Srivastava (Retd) said, “not one individual has been able to identify a single event during a hot war when inter-service cooperation was found wanting. Meghna river [in Bangladesh] was believed to be the ultimate and impregnable defence. But outstanding understanding between Gen. Sagat Singh and Chandan Singh did the impossible. Major armed forces of the world study the Indian campaign in erstwhile East Pakistan,” he told MVI. The Gp Capt. went on to say that “change for sake of change is the most irrational option in any domain.”
A differing perspective on the Bangladesh liberation war was presented by Col. Pradeep Dalvi (Retd). He said that the glaring example of exploitation of 1971 war victory by then PM Mrs. Indira Gandhi for her political mileage is well-known. “India is not a military state and therefore it follows directions given by the government towards maintaining preparedness for war and peace. If you look at our history since 1947 and the relationship that existed between the politicians, bureaucrats, and armed forces have been of mistrust and lack of communication and coordination which resulted in the debacle of 1962. The only instance where joint manship was exhibited was in 1971. Since then the relationship has deteriorated,” he noted, before remarking that “the appointment of CDS is the right step towards joint manship and single contact with the government.”
The single-point advisor idea is also the source of much disagreement. Gp Capt Johnson Chacko (Retd) explained, “Armed Forces operate in three different domains viz. Army, Navy, and Air Force. Now, many more such as Cyber, Info, etc. are coming up.” He is of the opinion that a single point of advice without that single point knowing the operational principles or doctrines of other domains will be a disaster. “What we need is a Joint Chief for Integrated application of Force during the war. After the war, they go back to their separate services. All heads of domains should decide on the war strategy/plans and be present when the Joint Chief interacts with the Council of Ministers or RM and PM,” Gp Capt. Chacko added.
Gp Capt. Chacko concluded, opining that “without a de-novo organisational design or foundation and laws to support it, such a designation as CDS has already landed up in a crisis as we don't know who will be next CDS in the instant case. CDS has not been a well thought out or deliberated office within a defined organisational structure for integrated application of force.”
Alongside the debate on whether the post should have existed, another raging matter is the legacy that India’s first CDS has left behind.
Legacy of the CDS
In his article, Lt. Gen. Prakash Menon, critical of Rawat’s actions, points out that the appointment of CDS meant that he was a key bureaucrat along with being the top military leader and as such, Gen. Rawat was expected to interface with the political leadership. There is much criticism surrounding Gen. Rawat’s actions as the CDS concerning the function that he was expected to fulfil.
Major General Anil Sengar (Retd) opines, “General Rawat set a wrong trend that sounded and left the impression of political tail wagging. The worst incident was his skipping the Naval Day wreath-laying to be part of a politico-religious function with Yogi in UP. Every army commander will see his chances of becoming chief if he makes the right noises. That is a disaster for the country.”
“High military positions must maintain the apolitical traditions and sanctity of the office. [Otherwise] the government will only exploit the military for political mileage.”
Brig. Ilangovan, however, disagrees with this view. He is of the view that those who think that the political affiliation or regional identity of a person or political influence is enough to get someone to the top post are mistaken. He opines: The politicians of recent times, contrary to what we may have been taught to believe, are no ‘scallywags’. They will never bet on a losing horse. They know what happened in 1962 and no party in power would catapult someone incapable to the top position. They all would want a winning man. Merit and some luck will still be needed to earn political patronage. Therefore recent comments alluding to some officer's elevation and the aspersion cast against him should be discarded with disdain.”
Veterans that talked to MVI also pointed to a troubling trend in the forces. Col. PK Royal Mehrishi (Retd) said, “the rot is within. The trouble stems from faulty atmospherics. Young Officers are groomed to shun candor and gauge which way the winds are blowing. Average Officers get inflated Annual Confidential Reports and make the cut. Course gradings and staff postings are overhyped instead of Regimental tenures.”
“A senior officer promoted for higher responsibilities is more comfortable taking orders from his political bosses rather than taking feedback from his contemporaries, colleagues, juniors, etc,” he commented.
A similar view is held by Brig. Sarvesh Dutt Dangwal (Retd). According to him, personal ambitions have superseded matters of moral courage and principles in the services and “led to a decay, which has made it subservient to the civilian government even when it is subordinate to it.”
“Subservience and personal ambitions have replaced rectitude and moral courage in the top leadership and have successively destroyed the essence of leadership. It cannot happen overnight to resurrect a virtue lost to personal ambition at costs to the organisation,” he added.
Brig Pradeep Sharma (Retd) added to the discourse concisely, saying “the fact is clear, fear of reprisal by this Govt has gagged every mouth and heart.”
“CDS has to be proactive on matters of national security. His words must carry weight. Was this the legacy of the late CDS? I am afraid the answer is a big ‘NO’. His legacy was of a ‘paper tiger’. Therefore there was no need to have a CDS if he has to function like a bureaucrat. The legacy of the last CDS was a compromised position. The task before the new CDS, if appointed, should be to acquire the powers befitting the chief of all security forces- engaged in both internal and external security,” remarked Col. Kushwaha.
There are voices that dissent with this view, of course. Some veterans who spoke to MVI recount the reforms that Gen. Rawat brought about as a part of his grand legacy. One such major reform was aimed at the theaterisation of India’s armed forces. Theatres refer to warfighting entities that comprise army, navy, and air force components. They would fight jointly to synergise the combat power of all three services. Rawat had told the media that the 17 single-service commands that currently exist would be integrated into just four geographical commands. Each of these would have elements from all three services.
Echoing words of appreciation, Col. Dalvi said, “Herculean efforts put in by CDS in theatre command requires to be lauded. As they say, it is very difficult to get an idea of change in the Armed Forces and interfere in their sphere of activity and domain.”
Col. Kushwaha disagreed. “The late CDS failed to implement the ‘theatrisation of armed forces’ because he had no control over the three services,” he said.
Lt Col. Gupta Ray noted that the “theaterisation of battlefields from the present command structure is not a very big deal as long as adequate resources are available at respective command level as flanks generally are covered by the flanking commands. In fact, the present command system is working fine.”
That comment notwithstanding, he went on to elaborate the significance of this system, stating: The Theater System becomes necessary when a country launches itself across the border to a new battle zone when flanks are open and the Theater of the operation has to be self-sufficient with the capabilities of switching troops and resources from other theater or Commands. That time and resources need to be adequately available to the Theater Commander.
As the raging debate on these issues continues, there are some inklings of a way forward from here.
Speaking to MVI, Brigadier BL Poonia (Retd) highlighted the perspective we could have and the way to go ahead from here in a comprehensive manner: As regards the loyalty of a CDS or a Service Chief towards the government, ideally he should be a person with an impeccable apolitical approach. But what is ideal and desirable may not always be practical. Gen KV Krishna Rao is a case in point. He gave a statement to suit the political design of the government of the day, that India was facing an imminent threat from Pakistan when there was none. His statement came under heavy criticism from all quarters. But he was rewarded for his loyalty, by being appointed as the Governor of J&K, followed by being appointed the Governor of Nagaland, Manipur, and Tripura.
So while selecting the Service Chiefs or the CDS, it is desirable to have an officer who is absolutely apolitical. However, there is no filter to gauge one's political leanings. Moreover, it is the government that appoints them. What is ideal and desirable, may or may not always be practical. Perfection is desirable but difficult to achieve. So we need to learn to live with the existing realities.”
He noted that we need not over-drive the point of the CDS being a 5-star General, when talking of their appointment, to the extent of suggesting that a Service Chief should refuse to accept it if offered with a 4-star General rank. “If one Service Chief refuses, the other may accept. To expect everyone to refuse would be too hypothetical a proposition. In a democratic setup, the government has the right to decide. What we need is, to accept it, and then slowly over a period of time, convince the government to upgrade it to a 5-star post. Getting into a direct confrontation with the government would not be in the interest of the organisation. Or else, it might provide the bureaucrats with the ammun+ition to convince the government to do away with the post of CDS. And that would not be a desirable option for the Defence Services.”
It is, thus, quite apparent that everything- from the debate surrounding the legacy left behind by Gen. Bipin Rawat for the upcoming CDS to the very existence of that post- is controversial. Our security context, military leadership, and political situation are all dynamic. A discourse, in these ever-changing times, on policies and appointments that affect the structures on which the nation stands, is necessary and benefits all. After all, highlighting issues and strengths, and finding solutions require healthy debates.