General Rawat’s legacy in civil-military relations
General Bipin Rawat has etched a place in military history, not so much by way of martial feats as much for his contribution to civil-military relations of New India. He was first recipient of governmental favour in its resort to ‘deep selection’ as a policy for selection to higher rank. His showing in the successive appointments – army chief and chief of defence staff – places the policy under a pall, showing it up as a ploy for the regime’s attempt at institutional capture of the military, quite in the same vein as it has truncated other national institutions.
Rawat came into limelight as corps commander when two cross-border raids into Myanmar were undertaken simultaneously. These caught the eye of the national security adviser (NSA), who was curiously on hand to oversee a tactical level action, with the army chief in tow. It is not known how many hangers-on and camp-followers - and therefore in the reckoning of international humanitarian law, noncombatants – were among the 60 killed in the camps struck.
It cannot be said with any certainty which of the two influences on NSA Ajit Doval – Rawat’s operational skills or his being an ethnic kin - resulted in Rawat’s elevation for field army command in Pune, outpointing one of his seniors, PM Hariz heading the training command at Shimla. Hariz was doubly-handicapped, being a mechanised warfare expert, but - more pertinently - a Muslim, anathema in New India then emerging.
Later, called to Delhi as vice chief, he outflanked yet another senior, his earlier boss in the North East, General Praveen Bakshi. A journalist recounted how Rawat, as vice chief, was heard hailing the surgical strikes launched by the government after the terror attack on Uri garrison. Did Rawat anticipate a shift to ‘deep selection’ to substitute for the seniority principle in selection of the apex military leaders or was he tipped off by his new found mentor within the new regime?
Such questioning is pertinent when contrasted with General Bakshi, for his part, by underplaying another surgical strike into Myanmar, did precisely the opposite. As it turned out in the run up to change over of army chief, men in shadows whispered against the front runner, General Praveen Bakshi. The deep selection policy had a positive start in the precedence set by the two officers superseded soldiering on.
Whether Rawat played with a straight bat at this juncture comes into question. He did not live up to the precedence in which two officers offered the chair of the army chief stepped aside for their senior being superseded: Generals Nathu Singh and Rajendrasinhji in favour of the senior most Indian officer, General Cariappa.
It soon became evident Rawat was selected for implementing the regime’s soon-to-unfold policy in Kashmir. Operation All Out was just that: a take-no-prisoners approach between 2016 and 2019. Rawat as its principal agent brought about a cultural makeover in the military’s approach, best exemplified by infamous ‘human shield’ episode.
The operations set the stage for the voiding of Article 370 by preemptively de-fanging any potential armed backlash. It is lost to history what Rawat’s input on this was, since the action has resulted not only in present-day aggravation of the situation but also in a long term threat lingering in Kashmir.
To keep Pakistan on a tight leash, Rawat touted surgical strikes. The second surgical strike did not involve the army directly, but the riposte of the Pakistani air force almost got its northern army commander, then visiting the forward defended localities, leaving the army rather red-faced.
But the more significant military event on Rawat’s watch was the Ladakh intrusion. Whereas early in Rawat’s tenure, the army had mobilized and held its own at Doklam, the outcome turned out vacuous. The Chinese reckoning that a similar outcome was possible in Ladakh, launched a massive intrusion in early 2020.
Rawat, by then chief of defence staff (CDS), did not exhibit any dexterity in a timely, equivalent grab action elsewhere. The army always has such contingency plans up its sleeve and its operational formations have intrinsic capability. It had exercised this capability only the previous autumn. Covid outbreak is not a plausible excuse for settling for ‘mirror deployment’, on over the last two winters, only redesignated as ‘proactive localized deployment’. This year, the army even stepped back from the Kailash range, which it had taken over amidst some auto-backslapping last year.
Apparently, CDS Rawat was persuaded that Chinese comprehensive national power was improbably of the order that a regional power, India, could not indulge itself in a perfectly legitimate and militarily plausible, localized, border war. Arguably, Rawat can be faulted for taking the counsel of his fears in his advice as the principal military adviser to the defence minister.
For its part, the government got the advice it bargained for, having chosen a counter-insurgency expert as top military adviser. So enamoured was Rawat with ‘grey zone’ war theory - on which the army doctrine put out under his tutelage is based – that the military appears to have concluded conventional war is passé. Since this emphasizes the ‘half front’ of the ‘two and half front war’ formulation put out by Rawat, it inserts the army into an essentially civilian domain, leading up to the logic articulated by the NSA that civil society is the new threat to national security.
Rawat’s approach to war-fighting played out in his controversial public face-off with the Air Force. To universal surprise, he admitted to a view that the air force was but an extension of the artillery. This appears a hangover of 1962, when the air was kept out of the conflict. The air force, with a self-belief as a service with a strategic purpose, was quick to publicly contradict Rawat.
A similar run in was with the Navy. While the silent service wishes for sea control capabilities, based on carriers, Rawat instead plugged for a sea-denial capability built on submarines. The argument reached such proportions that Rawat skipped the last Navy Day ceremonies, instead scheduling a lecture at Ajay Singh Bisht’s pocket borough, Gorakhpur.
With turf wars as this, Rawat’s legacy, being associated with the inception of the joint theatre command concept, is dead at birth. Rawat over-interpreted the press note on the appointment of the CDS. The mandate given therein does not state require front-specific joint theatre commands, pressed for by Rawat.
Rawat was unable to see through the politician’s ploy of shooting from his shoulders by not providing him with political direction. Rather than calling out this bit of political abdication on the part of his political masters, he instead went for a bottom-up solution, ordering the services to come up with studies on theatre commands. Though Rawat ran out of time wrapping up jointness, his successor must convince political masters that their investing political capital is necessary.
Inroads of ideology
It is for historians to unravel if Rawat’s forays into the headlines from time to time – the latest being his defence of lynchings – were because he sat on a difficult chair in the worst of times or because he was a regime acolyte. In favour of Rawat, it can be argued that seeing institutions fall like nine-pins around him, perhaps his foremost worry was to preserve the military from a similar fate. A choice to sway with the political ill-wind in such a case could arguably be taken as a pragmatic one. Unfortunately, in Rawat’s case there is no evidence yet that he ever had it mind to defer to the right wing political line only for pragmatic reasons: to ward off worse to come if he were to embark on confrontation. Clearly, the lessons of Admiral Bhagwat’s sacking reverberate through the decades, as perhaps they were meant to.
However, the foot-in-mouth syndrome that persisted all through his tenure prevents unambiguously ruling out that he was not purveyor of an ideological line, impardonable in a uniformed office holder. Till biographers tell us otherwise, Rawat will have to be held partially accountable for the departures from traditional civil-military relations in his time at the helm.