With less than three weeks for the current incumbent to retire from service, the India government has still not appointed the new Chief of the 1.4 million strong Indian Army. The government claims it does not want alternate power centres. Certain other sources feel that a long pending demand for a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) is being considered, and the delay is due the decision in this regard. A third school of thought revolves around the internecine struggle for power within the army itself.
An earlier analysis by this author dealt with the politicization of armed forces in the US in the run up to the Presidential elections and what could be learnt from it in the Indian context.
With Donald Trump as the President-elect, he has announced a slew of names, former Generals to key appointments such as Secretary of Defence, National Security Advisor and Secretary of Homeland Security, and the most sought after Secretary of State may also go to a former General. The Indian state is yet to reach that level of trust for it to appoint a former General to such key appointments in Cabinet. In fact it is still unable to decide whether the principle of civilian control over the armed forces can be tested to the extent of having a 5-star General as its Chief of Defence Staff. Certain other factors add to the feisty debate.
The Indian government could not have come up with a weaker excuse as that of alternate power centres. The process of transition in the Indian Army (or the Air Force or the Navy) is meant to obviate just that. Within a reasonable period of the retirement date of the present incumbent General Dabir Suhag, ideally the officer next in line, Lieutenant General Praveen Bakshi should have been brought in as the Vice Chief. He would then have had adequate time to learn from his predecessor thus ensuring a smooth transition on 1st January 2017. Instead, Lieutenant General Bipin Rawat was brought in as the Vice Chief, leaving Bakshi to continue as the Eastern Army Commander. Even if for a moment this argument is ignored, with less than three weeks for him to take over, citing ‘alternate power centres’ seems a bit far fetched at this stage.
To the credit of Prime Minister Modi, he has stressed upon the need for senior defence management reforms and for jointness in command since he has entered office. Therefore if the appointment of the CDS is indeed being considered, would it not work in his favour by at least announcing the step than by keeping it under the wraps?
In any case, with the bureaucratic stranglehold on military affairs in India, it may well take more than even the Prime Minister for such a decision. As is well known, the buraeucracy suffers from an inexplicable fear of the power that the military is allowed to wield, and naturally a 5-star CDS seems to be the epitome of this unfounded fear. Unfounded because the armed forces in India have always taken pride on their apolitical stance. Yet the fear remains. And naturally again, the bureaucrats cleverly pass it on the political leadership in order to keep the armed forces subservient to their own will.
If a CDS is under consideration, then it remains to be seen how much clout is the government ready to yield to the office? Would it be a full fledged 5-star General’s appointment, functioning as the single point military contact to the political leadership, and with the three Service Chiefs being subordinate to him? This would essentially devolve operational powers from the Chiefs, leaving them free to deal with training, equipment and administration; in turn these operational issues then become the forte of the theatre commanders (Army Commanders as they are called).
However such a move would require extensive preparatory steps because it would effectively mean a revamp of structures as are known presently. Or would it just be another watered down version? A few years back the appointment of the Chief of Integrated Staff Committee (CISC) was just that- a watered down version to keep the debate at bay, with virtually no role as envisaged for the office.
What could not be a more unfortunate turn of events for one of the finest armies in the world, would be the internecine struggle for power within the army itself that is causing this undue delay. It is well known that an underlying current exists in the form of rivalry between two fighting arms, the Infantry and the Armoured Corps (Suhag is from the Infantry, as is his protege Rawat, while Bakshi is from the Armoured Corps).
Much has been documented as well, on this issue, including a deliberate attempt to undermine the service profiles of officers by policies which can be termed dubious at best. The veracity of this claim can be well established by the fact that even Courts of Law have questioned such policies being in vogue. If this were indeed true, it would definitely be the final nail in the coffin. The Indian Army may not have to look outwards for threats; its intrinsic ability to create fissures would suffice then.