A General cannot set narrative in democracy

Power is the akshayapatra of greed which never satiates the high and mighty. Establishment figures are geniuses at finding ways and means outside the institutional monolith to expand their empire.
Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat (Photo | PTI)
Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat (Photo | PTI)

Power is the akshayapatra of greed which never satiates the high and mighty. Establishment figures are geniuses at finding ways and means outside the institutional monolith to expand their empire. Normally, the war to enlarge fiefdoms is waged by politicians and civil servants. In a rare aberration, a General has joined their ranks. Our Oliver Twist in uniform Bipin Rawat, the current Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), is a man in a hurry — a Military Machiavelli plotting and parleying to be India’s most powerful official in uniform since Independence.

Currently, he is the CDS as well as Principal Military Advisor to the Defence Minister, Secretary Military Affairs, and Military Advisor to the Nuclear Command Authority. He was Army chief for over three years and enjoyed a great reputation as a disciplined soldier. His term was extended by the Modi government to 65 years. A day before retirement, he was appointed CDS on December 31, 2019. This bump up has made him the first officer in olive green to perform the dual role of Secretary and CSD.

Rawat’s deployment was supposed to be part of the reform moves in the defence establishment. But he has behaved more like a political general of some monarchy than the head of the world’s second largest Army with great battle pedigree and discipline.  By criticising agitating students and marshaling his verbs against CAA last year, he provided arsenal to the opposition raising doubts over his professional conduct. Former Home Minister P Chidambaram asked him to “head the Army and mind your business.” But Rawat’s business is, according to his detractors, the accumulation of power — he has taken Chidambaram’s advice too literally. The original proposal mandated the CDS to coordinate among Army, Navy and Air Force and ensure optimum acquisition, deployment and utilization of assets.

Ignoring the military convention of discretion, Rawat rarely hides his aspirations. Last week, he crafted a new future role for himself. While there is no official statement from the government including the PM and the Defence Minister on the future contours of the defence leadership, Rawat spelt out its architecture in a public speech. The existing 17 single-service Commands would be shrunk to four geographical commands by drawing assets from all the three services. Imitating the Western concept of theatre command which comprise officers from all three services, India will have a similar structure to deal with new threat perceptions and initiate a quick response. But Rawat didn’t stick to structural modifications. He has weighed in on the hierarchy too.

“The chiefs will be responsible for raising, training, and sustaining functions of their services” and “ the war will be fought by the theatre commanders on a plan approved by the Chief of Staff Committee (CoSC),” he said. “In the long run, what we are looking at is the theatre commanders will become operational commanders, reporting to the CoSC chairman,” he disclosed.

Currently, core commanders of each service report to their chief and take instructions from him. Now the rapacious CDS will lead operations and the services chiefs will be reduced to mere stenographers. In his great wisdom and magnanimity, the General might consult them if he deems fit. In the absence of public documentation, defence experts see this usurping as professional imperialism, since the move is contrary to the terms and conditions of Rawat’s appointment. The defence ministry had informed Parliament that the CDS’ duties and functions are the following:

  • Head the Dept of Military Affairs in MoD and function as its Secretary.
  • Act as the principal military advisor to Raksha Mantri on all tri-service matters
  • Function as the Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee
  • Administer the tri-service organizations/agencies/commands. 
  • To be a member of Defence Acquisition Council.
  • Function as the Military Advisor to the Nuclear Command Authority,
  • Bring about jointness in operation, logistics, transport, training, support services, communications, repairs and maintenance, etc of the three services.
  •  Ensure optimal utilisation of infrastructure and rationalise it through jointness among the services.
  •  Implement Five-Year Defence Capital Acquisition Plan and Two-Year roll-on Annual Acquisition Plans, as a follow up of Integrated Capability Development Plan.
  • Assign inter-services prioritisation to capital acquisition proposals based on the anticipated budget.

Soon after his appointment, news items based on government sources clarified the CDS would be “first among equals as the permanent Chairman of CoSC and lead a new department of military affairs even though he would be a four star general with same pay and perks like the three service chiefs who will retain full operational control over their forces.” In his capacity as Principal Military Adviser to the Defence Minister, the CDS would offer his advice, but only on tri-services matters and would not exercise military command. The powers of the Service chiefs, including advising the government, wouldn’t be disturbed or transferred to the CDS. Since then, no authority either reviewed or redefined Rawat’s powers and functions. Only the Cabinet Committee on Security is empowered to decide on sensitive matters.

Historically, the decision to overhaul the Indian defence establishment was taken after the Kargil Review Committee report by K Subrahmanyam, which recommended not only the appointment of a NSA but also unified planning. There was not a whiff about a CDS or theatre commands. The report was partially implemented by Vajpayee when he appointed Brijesh Mishra as NSA. Mishra was the Principal Secretary to the PM, too. For the next 20 years, all recommendations went to the shredder or were sent for a quiet burial in the paper mountains of various panels and committees. Soon after becoming the CDS, Rawat took up pending suggestions which gives him greater scope to rule the forces unchecked.  It is a work in process. For now, the General has received a setback due to serious objections raised by senior defence officials.

Irrespective of inter-services rivalry, the concept of theatre commands could be implemented soon. But the battle plan is yet be decided. The defence ministry is studying how 67 countries with a CDS playing a significant role in defining strategy, are faring. In the US, the CDS reports directly to the President who is the Commander-in-Chief. In England, the CDs reports to the Prime Minister. Since India is parliamentary democracy which operates through the Cabinet, the pecking position of the CDS becomes very complex. The entire defence establishment reports to the Defence Minister. All the three chiefs and the CDS advise him on military affairs. At the same time, the PM is advised by the NSA on military affairs, who also enjoys Cabinet Minister status.

On the other hand, Rawat has significantly sanitised the defence equipment acquisition system and brought in a degree of transparency. But his predatory pleonexia to lead India’s combat commands while keeping the administration gripped in his mailed fist is causing discomfiture in the establishment. Coddling a power hungry general on the prowl in conflict with the democratic hierarchy is setting a deplorable precedent. By planning an administrative coup d’etat in his establishment, Rawat is weakening one of India’s few institutions that has never been compromised, or weakened by any avaricious aspirations of an individual.

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