What Will Be General Bipin Rawat’s Place in India's Military History?
Now that the dust from the helicopter accident has settled, it is worth examining General Rawat’s contribution at the apex of the military. He occupied space at the highest levels for some five years, more than anyone in independent India, having been army chief for some three years and chief of defence staff (CDS) for close to two years.
During this period, significant and unprecedented military developments took place in respect of Pakistan and China and, equally importantly, in regard to Kashmir and the North East. Consequential military reforms were also undertaken, including his elevation as the first CDS, first permanent chairperson of the chiefs of staff committee and secretary of the newly created department of military affairs (DMA) within the defence ministry. The greatest shift has been in terms of cultural transformation under the mostly-indirect influence of the foundational philosophy of New India, hindutva. These form the backdrop for determining the General’s place in history.
Pakistan figured large in the early part of the General’s tenure. Right off the blocks, he cleared up India’s best kept puzzle: its conventional doctrine. India had not owned up over some fifteen years of its existence to the Cold Start doctrine. Not only did the General take ownership of the doctrine, but initiated steps for its operationalisation in the creation of integrated battle groups (IBG), the work horses of limited offensives into Pakistan in case compelled by Pakistani proxy war provocations.
Even so, it is a retrogressive step since it more or less accepts a lack of adeptness in maneuver warfare. There is no compelling need for preconfigured, objective-specific IBGs, when mechanized formations can flow into battle reconfiguring on the march. If they do not have this felicity at the outset, then it is incomprehensible how these battle groups can outlast the first bullet fired, which as military history teaches puts a spanner in the works of the best laid plans.
This betrays a military incapacity, brought about, in part by the counter insurgency fixation over past three decades. Incidentally this focus led to General Rawat, bolstered by supposed counter insurgency expertise, pipping at the post two of his seniors, from the mechanized forces, to the rank of general. Arguably this professional preoccupation led to India being blind-sided by China’s intrusions into Ladakh.
Though the army under General Rawat had taken a firm stand at Doklam, it proved a meager deterrent. The Chinese apparently rightly reading India’s reluctance to up the military ante walked into Ladakh, clubbing a score Indian soldiers to death as they did so. This unwillingness to chance escalation suggests a deficiency in the exercise of operational art in terms of manipulation of the escalation threat in order to make the other side blink. As CDS, Rawat was overly impressed by the gap in comprehensive military power between the two sides, resting on his oars with mirror deployment, jargoned as ‘proactive localized deployment’, rather than going for a quick counter-grab in riposte.
It is in relation to Kashmir that the General’s military reputation stands to suffer most, since it’s the site of his expertise. Not only did the General oversee a human rights-insensitive counter insurgency campaign, Operation All Out, but did not alert the government to the adverse long term effects of its Kashmir policy twist, the voiding of Article 370. As the lead agency in the Valley, the army should have asked for voicing its input and done so by thumping the table against the initiative. That it did not do so bespeaks of either being persuaded by the action or not having the gumption to take a stand. Either way is unedifying.
The post-Uri terror attack surgical strikes were prior to the General’s tenure at the helm, but were based on his stewardship of similar high-publicity strikes into Myanmar as corps commander in the North East. These led to his catching the eye of National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval, an ethnic fellow. Similar strikes the following year were downplayed by the then eastern army commander, General Praveen Bakshi, resulting in part in his being sidelined from the army Chief’s chair, since it deprived the political masters of an opportunity to grandstand over a military feat.
Surgical strikes have thus had more of a domestic political fallout than an external strategic one. Pakistan, the intended target of deterrence, has gone one-up over India in its aerial riposte to Balakot. That Pakistan has been relatively restrained over the General’s tenure in Kashmir owes to its privileging the Afghanistan denouement over the past few years, rather than being impressed by India’s strategic shift advertised by surgical strikes.
The recent botched military operation in Nagaland shows up vulnerability, accentuated in the ongoing long-duration crisis with China. Whether and to what levels General Rawat input the government’s policy is not known. For instance, the Nagaland imbroglio continues since the Framework Agreement cannot be operationalised as the Nagas insist on a separate flag and Constitution. India, having only recently deprived Kashmiris of the same federal privileges has in effect shot itself in the foot twice over. Strategic level input from the army, the lead counter insurgency force in both locations, should have been to influence policy away from such counter-productive initiatives. It is lost to history if General Rawat exercised his known social capital with the regime to put some strategic sense into its moves.
It would be tragic if later biographers were to alight on evidence that his input on such decisions was instead to acquiesce. It brings into question his elevation, raising the question was it because he would likely play along - either being docile or a believer himself - that led to his selection as first CDS? Recall the announcement of the position was delayed till after his contender, the then air chief, retired. Even the CDS position was not without a spoke-in-the-wheel in that with the creation of the DMA – a bureaucratic silo without precedent in any democracy - the first CDS was reduced to being just another secretary, from a protocol equivalence to cabinet secretary.
Here, General Rawat busied himself with structural transformation without the benefit of a political directive, resulting in separate public and embarrassing jousts with the air and naval chiefs. It is also unclear if the trajectory of jointness to culminate in front-specific integrated theatre commands has political imprimatur, given that the mandate does not explicitly figure in the remit of the CDS in the press release on the appointment. The process therefore appears to be somewhat of a wild goose chase that shall prove a bugbear if his successor does not take the opportunity of a change over to course correct.
Finally, and most importantly, was General Rawat’s perhaps historic role of ushering the Indian army into the New India of the Second Republic. To be fair to the General, he was at the helm at the most difficult of times for the military. When all institutions succumbed to the hindutva juggernaut and bent to the will of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it would have been quite a feat had the military leadership cauterised the military from being influenced by political forces.
The military’s political masters decided to go in for ‘deep selection’ as the new policy for selection of higher appointments, Rawat being a prominent beneficiary. It remains to be known whether he swayed with the wind pragmatically and, as lead gatekeeper, assented to open up the military only partially and selectively. This might have been a plausible strategy, lest in taking a stand the military were to keel over altogether. However, from his utterances from time to time, it cannot unambiguously be said that Rawat was not a bhakt himself. That might with time turn out his unfortunate legacy.