It has been almost five months since General Bipin Rawat, the erstwhile Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), passed away in a tragic helicopter crash. He was mandated to push the boldest reforms which the Indian armed forces were to implement since Independence. The creation of theatre commands and appointing a single head for the armed forces were long delayed because the bureaucracy feared that it would move the armed forces away from their clutches. Hence, they always projected that armed forces under one head was a sure-shot recipe for a coup.
More importantly, the DMA (Department of Military Affairs) under the CDS took responsibility for joint planning, determining procurements and almost all military matters, reducing the importance of the bureaucracy in the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The nation looked up to the CDS more than the defence secretary. General Rawat believed in the need for reforms and was fully committed to them, despite reservations from many, including a few service heads. His advantage was that he had the ears of the political leadership, hence could push what he felt was essential.
To allay fears of individual services and overcome issues of integration, General Rawat had ordered multiple studies headed by senior serving officers, incorporating members of sister services to suggest needed organisational structures. It was hoped that these joint studies would set doubts at rest. These were in progress when the helicopter crash occurred. Since then, the senior-most serving chief has been officiating in his place. Reforms, which had commenced with a bang, have come to a standstill as service chiefs would never push any controversial issue between them up the chain. This was the malady within the forces which necessitated a change in structure. It is now back to the starting point.
By not appointing a new CDS, whatever the reason, the government is conveying multiple disconcerting messages. The foremost is that it has its doubts about the reforms which it itself considered essential. This indicates that the national leadership had not thought through its decisions on pushing reforms within the forces and the words of the prime minister on the subject were hollow and solely for gaining political mileage.
Second, the polity has come under pressure from the bureaucracy to stall reforms and let the services continue to function in independent silos where powers of decision-making remained within the MoD, headed by bureaucrats, with no knowledge of military affairs. What had irked the bureaucracy was that under General Bipin Rawat the armed forces had begun being involved in national security decision making, relegating the bureaucracy, mainly those in the MoD, into the background. The defence secretary, till recently a coveted appointment, was losing its sheen.
Third, it conveys that the government has found no one suitable to fill the boots of Bipin Rawat. This is impossible to believe as multiple service chiefs have been appointed by the current dispensation.
Fourth, the delay also implies that the government has no time for matters concerning the forces and national security. There has been no word from the government on when it would appoint the next CDS, conveying that it may not even be anywhere within the government’s current priorities.
General Rawat had become the national face of the armed forces. The public viewed him as the individual who shared the progress of reforms and built confidence amongst them in the ability of the armed forces to counter emerging threats. His matter-of-fact comments were discussed across the world, earning him global respect. No service chief has been able to muster that level of national and global recognition.
A CDS is needed now, more than ever before. National security threats are on the rise while defence budgets witness a downward trend. Without a CDS the government no longer has a single-point military advisor, reverting to the old days of the bureaucracy representing the forces. Along India’s northern borders the standoff continues, while Pakistan has its launch pads in PoK full. Diplomacy to handle the Chinese has failed. This is the time when the forces need to act as one but will not unless there is a CDS to push.
Simultaneously, hair-brained schemes aiming to cut manpower, reduce salaries and pensions continue to flow downwards from the government forcing the forces to counter them. Without a CDS the battle by the services to challenge these schemes are in independent silos, benefitting the government. Possibly this could be the reason for delay from the government in appointing a CDS.
The armed forces are back to services projecting their own capability requirements. Joint planning, determining procurements to build joint capabilities, are unlikely to happen without a CDS heading the DMA. Studies to create theatre commands, which gained prominence, would have begun to gather dust. Synergy, which the forces lacked during Kargil, will become the order of the day. The work of General Rawat in pushing requisite reforms would be a waste. The DMA, which had just commenced asserting itself, would be consigned into the dustbin. The longer the hesitation, the more likely things would return to the old days. All this because the government delays in appointing a CDS.
The political leadership must realise that delay on its part is impacting national security. The armed forces and the nation need a CDS and not appointing one is damaging the system rather than benefiting it.
The author is a former Indian Army officer, strategic analyst and columnist. Views expressed are personal.