It is always said that no one is indispensable. It has also been stated that for one leaving his post, there are multiple in the line. It may be true in most cases, but the spontaneous outpouring of grief and witnessing emotions amongst the common Indian, from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, sends the message that General Bipin Rawat was one of his kind, a man whose boots will be hard to fill. He spoke without fear or favour, ignored the fact that he should be politically correct and believed the nation must come first. He fought the system to bring about changes for the betterment of the forces.
There are some sceptics who believe that the outpouring of grief was politically orchestrated, especially with elections around the corner. However they are wrong. Never has a top Armed Forces appointee passed away in such a tragic manner with so many others.
The grief visible across the nation was spontaneous and visible even in areas where the Army is hardly discussed or where it is intensely disliked. It also cemented the fact that the common Indian holds the armed forces in high esteem.
There is no doubt General Rawat’s reliever will have an established department and a plan for the future, while simultaneously seeking to establish his own credentials. Over the years, General Rawat had created a rapport with the government. He did this by proving his capability in multiple dimensions. The defence minister and the prime minister trusted him completely. They accepted his advice on every occasion. Nothing was more evident than during Doklam, the surgical strikes in Myanmar and Pakistan as also during the ongoing crisis with China. It was this trust which gave the government confidence to launch major reforms. Whoever fills these boots will need to build a similar nature of trust to enable the ongoing reforms to continue.
General Rawat established the Department of Military Affairs (DMA), a reform which had been protested tooth and nail by the bureaucracy as it implied them losing control over the Armed Forces. Many had even published articles stating that placing the Armed Forces in the hands of one individual could result in an internal threat. The DMA faced a difficult start, with multiple stumbling blocks, which General Rawat carefully negotiated. He convinced those who mattered that its structuring was an essential element and must include military and civilians working in harmony to achieve the ultimate goal of amalgamating the armed forces with the government. The base that he created will now have to be carried forward and the organisation made more efficient and capable of delivering results.
He also launched the largest reform the Indian Armed Forces have undergone in the past seven decades, the creation of theatre commands. Till date, the services had functioned in independent silos, with service chiefs as virtual kings, being both service providers and employers, and hence were unwilling to merge as it implied them losing control. The process began slowly as all had to be convinced that such a step was essential and must be completed. General Rawat sought to move all pillars of the forces together, rather than push his way. The ball has now been set rolling and cannot be stopped. He paved the way and anyone filling his boots would need to push it to its logical conclusion.
Very few Generals have the power to speak without fear or favour, General Rawat being one of them. He, therefore, won hearts and minds within the defence community and the masses. The General spoke regularly on forthcoming threats, openly warning both Pakistan and China that India was capable of thwarting their nefarious designs. He not only spoke of a two-and-a-half front war but was also preparing Indian Armed Forces for the same. He was clear that future threats would be land-based, as the battle was for territory, and the role of the other services was to ensure the enemy’s designs were thwarted. Thus, he rubbed some of the services on the wrong side. Such clarity of thought in such an appointment is essential.
Indigenisation was given a major boost. General Rawat was firm in the belief that if we have to become a global power, we must bank on domestic production, rather than on imports. Hence, supporting the nascent Indian defence industry was essential. In addition was the need to boost its confidence by action. The issue of lists banning import of specific items enhanced confidence of the domestic industry. There is no doubt that these steps were taken in conjunction with service chiefs. This push must continue, and the Indian defence industry supported.
A major global message which General Rawat projected, through words and action, was that India would respond in kind to any misadventures on its soil. The cross-border strike in Myanmar, Pakistan, Doklam and capture of the Kailash Ridge projected that the Indian hierarchy has an offensive mindset and would retaliate to misadventures. It did cause ripples in the neighbourhood. This strong and tough mentality is a quality for future CDS appointees.
General Rawat displayed clarity of mind, vision and strategic thought. He had set his goals and was working towards them. He had the trust of the political hierarchy which enabled him to push reforms and bypass bureaucratic roadblocks. His work thus far would be both a boon and a challenge for his successor. However, the best way to honour General Rawat for his service would be to ensure that reforms he had set into motion are completed and theatre commands established at an early date. This would be the primary responsibility of his successor and is unlikely to be easy.
The author is a former Indian Army officer, strategic analyst and columnist. Views expressed are personal.