Agenda for the new Chiefs
Determining the limits of ‘apolitical’
The last-time round, the turn-over of Army chief was delayed to merely two weeks prior to the date of retirement of the incumbent, General Rawat. This was a departure from past practice when the Chief-designate used to be announced sufficiently early, giving the handing-over process a month or so to play out. The departure from practice in December 2019 was understandable in light of the government putting together the procedures for creation of a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and deciding on who would be the first occupant of the newly created post. In the event, General Rawat was appointed CDS merely a day prior to his retirement.
In the current iteration there is no acceptable reason for the government to have delayed showing its hand. Even if we are to believe that it was concerned that the seniors of its prospective choice of Army Chief – Vice Chief General Pande - were yet to retire, the last of three shed his uniform end last month. Enough time has passed since the unfortunate expiry of General Rawat in an accident for the government to have made up its mind on his successor. The two appointments could have been announced early this month; even if Naravane was not its choice for CDS and particularly so if he is indeed its choice.
This needless wait gives rise to avoidable speculation. The grapevine may be indulging in its new pastime: ‘deep selecting’ between the two kinds of candidates - the professional and those, who through virtue-signaling have indicated their pliability quotient. More consequential is reflecting on what might be holding up the government and what the implications are for the military, in particular the Army.
From such an exercise emerges the agenda of the incoming Chiefs. If the implications are found to be negative, then the Chiefs have to hold their end up, batting for their team and not either for themselves or a mythical New India. While a straight bat is always best, technical perfection may not be the best way for them to play their forthcoming innings.
So, what’s holding up the government? It is a verity that professionalism at the apex of the military is largely uniform. This is not quite true for the CDS appointment, as is evident from General Rawat’s stewardship of it. An infantry man and supposedly a counter insurgency specialist, his run-ins with the other two Services suggest that he was arguably out of his depth on his key mandate, jointness. So, a fine-grained look at professionalism that befits the CDS is warranted. Even so, since – as mentioned – four months are enough for that, the government appears to be looking not for professionalism as much as for likemindedness.
Its record on appointing heads of other institutions is indicative. A look at the education sector suggests that the government wishes for ideologically-aligned personages. From the apex police appointments, largesse is evident for those from the Gujarat cadre and those who have assisted in the journey of the prime minister from a provincial honcho to Delhi. Such assistance allegedly on occasion also involved cover-up of some legally suspect deeds along the way.
The latest appointment - of the head of the Union Public Service Commission - provides a hint of what goes on in the collective mind of the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet that comprises the prime minister and his acolyte, the home minister. Though this author has been in the International Relations (IR) field for past three decades, he has not come across any publication or even the spoken reputation of the eminence appointed to the consequential chair, whose background is reportedly in IR. This indicates that institutional building is not the lookout, instead institution rewiring is.
While such scraping of the bottom of the barrel for an ideologically-aligned brass-hat is not possible in the military’s case, the regime will nevertheless be very selective, looking at the next significant factor: pliability. This may dilute the premium on professionalism: Naravane’s apparently missing the boat suggests as much. That willy-nilly ‘pliability’ foregrounds itself as a factor begs the question: Why?
The hint is in the most recent mouthings of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) head, Mohan Bhagwat, at a gathering of ‘saints’ (as per the news report) in Haridwar. He said that Akhand Bharat is to be fast tracked to 15 years. This, to him, “is not possible without the progress of religion”. The place of religion is evident from his saying, “Sanatan Dharma is only Hindu Rashtra.” Anyone contesting progress on this path “will be either removed or finished.” He acknowledges that the power is with the people. Therefore, they are being conditioned by the RSS. He urges the religious gathering to also prepare the people, adding, “We will walk together as an example, without fear.” He expects to deter contestation and international attention from what’s to follow by carrying a “big”, “heavy” stick.
It is no state secret that the regime owes allegiance to the RSS. The government, the ruling party and the RSS have confabulated on policies. The RSS chief’s call to walk ‘without fear’ in the direction he has indicated – Hindu Rashtra to be presumably followed by Akhand Bharat – shows his confidence in the government holding the RSS’ back. This is evident in the depredations of Hindutva believers being overlooked and instead their victims – mostly Muslims - being arraigned either in court or targeted for reprisal – such as by demolition of houses - by the State.
If Hindu Rashtra is being fast-forwarded, it is not only because of the confidence lent by the people returning Messrs Modi and Bisht to respective chairs. Modi’s sway over people’s imaginations – brought about by a captive media, his own charisma, fake news tailored for a post truth age and a troll army - lends the Hindutva lobby confidence that they have that wide a time window.
Besides, the international situation is in a flux and any human rights opprobrium their contemplated measures (evidenced by the reference to the stick) will attract can be treated like water off a duck’s back. Blinken’s recent tough talk on human rights while in India attracted a riposte by Jaishankar showing how India will handle adverse external attention henceforth.
Where does the military fit in all this?
Admittedly, the military – traditionally conceived – has no role. As an apolitical military, it is sworn to lay off politics. At best, it is to have a stand-off, facilitative role. A military that genuflects to Hindutva, while ostensibly keeping its constitutional distance, helps Hindutva hit its stride.
The regime has done enough to incentivise behavior along these lines by the military. It has put up a war memorial and is turning out a museum. It showcases the military in events like Parakram Parv. The prime minister spends Diwali with troops. It has arguably delivered on One Rank One Pension - of sorts. It has studiously looked the other way when the military has under-performed as at Balakot, Rajauri (site of the Pakistani aerial riposte) and Ladakh, even as information war targeting the domestic audience has kept this a national secret.
The regime’s national security policies have been such as to ensure the military is kept to the professional till, with no leeway for a stray, political thought. It has been sent up the Himalayas in full strength, even though the increase of India-China trade over the first quarter reportedly registered the highest-ever growth by volume. The regime has stirred up the Kashmir pot with its Articles 35A and 370 caper; ensuring that the army has enough on its plate into perpetuity. The remainder of the army is undergoing a make-over from traditional formations to integrated battle groups, which should keep it immersed professionally for a decade. The military has jointness on its agenda, which will keep it busy through the timeline to Hindu Rashtra.
Not only does the military have a compelling job at hand, but has also been thrown a bone. Sensibly, to over-ensure, the regime has some innovative ideas to whittle it. The Tour of Duty (TOD) brainwave is one such. This will dilute cohesion in the ranks, keeping the military from mounting a political challenge. A cohesive military is good for operational effectiveness, but bad for civil-military relations if it gets the wrong ideas into its head.
It is in this context pliable military leaders are useful. Not only must they keep the military out of politics as it takes its own course, but discreetly and tacitly demonstrate comfort levels with the ideological preponderance of Hindutva to, in turn, help it prevail over competing political narratives.
In case the Hindutva project goes awry, then the military may be asked to be part of the big, heavy stick. As for Akhand Bharat, if in the imaginings of Bhagwat it has a bigger territorial area than presently controlled by India, it is feasible that the military might be subject to mission creep, from offensive defence now to compellence then. Even developing the capacity to bring this about – even if in the event it is not chanced for good reasons as the nuclear threshold - will help keep neighbour Pakistan tied down. As for what Akhand Bharat means in relation to China, it would be imprudent to rely on Amit Shah’s grandstanding in parliament of August 2019 for any hint.
If these are the expectations of the upcoming military leadership, then we can arrive at the leadership agenda of the new military chiefs. It’s easy to see that the route charted by Mohan Bhagwat is quite opposed to the Constitution. Though Bhagwat takes care to say that the people are in control, note that he also says that they are being conditioned to go down a certain path.
Consequently, while changes may be procedurally democratic, as to whether this is enough to change the basic structure of the Constitution, from a secular to a majoritarian democracy, is questionable. A captive judiciary may not be able to rule against a rabid State on this score. It bears thinking through as to what the role of the military is in extremis. Are there limits to the doctrine of a democratic military being apolitical?
An instructive period to look at on this is Germany of the late thirties and within it, at the Wehrmacht. The sway of Hitler required the subordination of the military. Not only did Hitler meddle with the line-up, elevating compliant military leaders, but was rather ruthless as he went about it. Alongside, he gave sufficient professional incentive to the German Army, allowing it to expand and the resources to do so; thereby cultivating the operational level commanders. Changes towards operationalisation of Blitzkrieg kept the German Army busy, even as Hitler created the conditions and provided an opportunity for the employment of their professional skills. Sensibly, he created rival armed formations, as the Schutzstaffel, as insurance. He also sent in the Hitler-Jugend to populate its ranks.
There are parallels drawn by the liberal commentariat with this period, from the way India is headed. However, at the current juncture, the military can at best be alert to its dharma. India’s millennia-long and culturally-compliant subordination of the military to the political masters cannot be changed, merely by surmising the future from the boasts of the RSS. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.
Even so, for now, a military alert to its dharma will help deter any thought in any right wing head that the military has been brought to heel as have other institutions. The military apex needs to be prickly when called on to lend political masters a hand, such as for using the military’s tacit endorsement of its actions or achievements for its political purposes.
Since the political project will advance more than a step at a time (“Everything will not be achieved at once,” according to Bhagwat.), the agenda for the new Chiefs can only be limited to demonstrating to the regime that the military still has its spine. They must also read the riot act to Hindutva bhakts within the ranks. Evidently, reading from social media, there are many. They must stand tall against hare-brained schemes as TOD. They must of course - as is the case with all Chiefs historically – ensure the military does not let down its guard and punches to its weight.
Since the regime has the initiative, it would look out for military Chiefs who would not push back. Since it is at the top of its run up and is only now turning to come down the track into bowl, it does not need pliability to a degree as it would as it speeds up to the wickets at the bowler’s end. This gives hope that professionalism might yet get the better of pliability for now – ideological slant being ruled out. Professionalism allows for discharge of the advisory function with conviction. So the Chiefs must know they are empowered to advise the regime where it gets off, without insisting on it.