Friday, 27 December 2019

Welcoming the new army chief

One file is likely to go through the bureaucratic mill rather quickly over this week. Ajit Doval, no stranger in this part of India for his dynamism, will likely pilot the file of his ethnic kin, General Bipin Rawat – to whom he owes much for implementing his Kashmir policy with gusto – for as the first chief of defence staff (CDS). The ticker on television at the time of writing has it that the government has cleared the mandate of the CDS. All that remains is to reward Bipin Rawat for his services in Operational All Out that set teh stage for Amit Shah’s August constitutional initiative on Kashmir by allowing Rawat another two years to loyally serve the regime.
To its credit, however, the government has done well to appoint Lt Gen MM Naravane as the new army chief, though the post of chief of defence staff (CDS) that was widely expected to be announced simultaneously continues without its first incumbent. One good thing about Naravane’s elevation is that it blocks Lt Gen Ranbir Singh from the position, unless down-the-line the government makes another change when it gets round to appointing the CDS – if Rawat does not make the cut.
It is not unknown for an incumbent chief to get an extension. Gen GG Bewoor’s extension is precedent. It allowed Indira Gandhi to set the popular and strong Lt Gen Prem Bhagat to pasture in the Damodar Valley in order to usher in Lt Gen ‘Tappy’ Raina, to cap off her kitchen cabinet of Kashmiri Pandits. In the event, Raina disappointed her by steering the army off the emergency. So Rawats chances have not dimmed as yet.
But then Rawat had competition, from his own northern army commander, Lt Gen Ranbir Singh. Singh also went out his way to establish his credentials on amenability with the government. He engaged in two public spats – albeit via the media – with his predecessor in his appointment, retired Lt Gen DS Hooda. The issue they indirectly faced off over was whether surgical strikes after the Uri terror attack were an innovation or were they merely an extension of what the army had been mounting all through the preceding decade and half along the Line of Control (LC).
The first exchange between the two generals was in wake of Hooda’s position taken at the last edition of the annual military literature festival at Chandigarh last year when he opined that the hype surrounding the surgical strikes was unwarranted. He was referring perhaps to the government only two months prior indulging in a bit of self-congratulations when starting off on the run up to national elections the following year when it observed the second anniversary of the surgical strikes as the Parakram Parv.
The second round of disagreement between the two was just as elections drew to close. The military operations had untimely from an elections point of view claimed, apropos nothing in particular, that the surgical strike was a unique event. Hooda had by then been contracted by the Congress party to write up a national security doctrine for them that informed the security part of their manifesto. The army’s raising of the matter yet again at election time was as if to discredit Hooda and his liberal doctrinal take, though even Hooda’s doctrine endorsed surgical strikes as an arrow in India’s deterrent quiver. Ranbir Singh, yet again unnecessarily and with eminently questionable timing, waded in by backing his military operations colleagues. For his pains, Ranbir Singh remains in the higher appointment race, if not as army chief for now, then as CDS, since CDS is open to deep selection from the ranks of three-star brass.  
The good thing about Naravane’s appointment is that both Rawat and Ranbir Singh would no longer be able to impact directly the army’s apolitical culture. Both have gone out of their way to signal political like-mindedness to the government, which has compromised the army’s long-standing apolitical ethic. Even if Naravane shares the world view of the government, he has been discerning in his speech so far and on that account is a welcome change from the verbosity – if not bombast – of his immediate predecessor.
The only known occasion Naravane signaled his acceptability for the government was when he was appointed vice chief from his army commander post at Kolkata, seen as a step up to being front runner for taking over as next chief. He had said that India’s transgressions of the Line of Actual Control with China were twice as many as Chinese incursions up to their line of territorial claims.
Since the mainstream media keeps up a lament over Chinese incursions, it was a useful addition to open domain knowledge that India was way ahead of the Chinese. Perhaps, Naravane was signaling that the eastern army had not slept on his watch, making it as active – even if less visible - in staring the stronger foe, the Chinese, as Ranbir Singh’s northern army tackling the Kashmiri insurgency. This was to the government’s credit since it had political dividend in projecting the government being strong on defence in first place and keeping China at bay with the Doklam stand-off as centerpiece.
As an aside, it bears reflection that none of the generals in tactical level command connected to Doklam made it to next rank. Does this mean India blundered into the stand-off and muddled through before being bailed out by deft diplomatic footwork by S Jaishankar, then foreign secretary, and Mandarin expert, VK Gokhale, the current one? This explains in part Modi’s craven call on the Chinese strong man at Wuhan later and the elevation of firefighter, Jaishankar, who since retired, to head the ministry. This perhaps explains the hyper-alertness of Naravane’s army, signified by double the number of transgressions of the LAC, movements up to India’s claim line on the Chinese side, in order to recreate conventional deterrence post-Doklam.
More significantly from the discussion on Naravane’s suitability from a civil-military relations point of view, the general early on in Modi’s term, speaking at a seminar at Panjab University, Chandigarh, as then head of the army’s training command, reiterated the secular credentials of the country as among its core values. This echoed the section on values underpinning national security and military doctrine that find mention in the joint doctrine of 2017. This perhaps led to his continuing to cool his heels in Shimla even has his junior Ranbir Singh sped off to command the prestigious and India’s largest northern army. Naravane’s move later to head a field army out of Kolkata seemingly rehabilitated him, after partial eclipse by Ranbir Singh, in the race for next chief.
Such moves are significant, since the last time a junior skipped the queue for field army was with Bipin Rawat taking over southern army even as his senior, the first Muslim general in a quarter century to reach army commander rank, Lt Gen PM Hariz, continued in Shimla. In the event, Rawat outpointed both Hariz and the then frontrunner, Lt Gen Praveen Bakshi.
The other good thing from Naravane’s appointment is that the government appears to have got over its Pakistan and Kashmir fixation. When it appointed Rawat to head the army, it had let on that his expertise was required for ending the proxy war and insurgency in Kashmir. Perhaps it believes that extant violence indices indicate that it has managed to end the proxy war and insurgency. It can now turn to the more significant rival, China. It is not as if Naravane is a spring chicken when it comes to counter insurgency, having commanded a battalion of the Rashtriya Rifles, or against Pakistan, having headed a strike corps. However, his expertise is on the China front, with stints as defence attaché in Myanmar and brigade and division command in the north east.
This will help India get over its Kashmir obsession, that would have otherwise continued had Ranbir Singh, who oversaw the recent lockdown, taken over instead. That Rawat and Ranbir Singh did not provide the right military input India’s misconceived Kashmir and Pakistan policies is evident from the constitutional initiative in early August. India flirted with a war that could potentially go nuclear, an unwarranted price to pay for the ruling party to indulge its ideological agenda.
Civil-military relations on even keel require military advice uncompromised by ideological convergence. It is not for a military head to tell the government what it wishes to hear. That Kashmir will stay as a head ache – on account of India’s missteps and his predecessor’s pliability – will keep Naravane to the till in Kashmir.
At the mentioned seminar, Naravane called out the lack of traction of the political track with Pakistan, despite the reactivation of the LC. He virtually predicted the escalation that resulted and the death of prospects of a negotiated return to a pre-existing ceasefire. Now he is better positioned to act on his instinct. He can convey the same piece of advice. Having seen that a hard-nosed policy has limited utility, the government could reverse course. Could it be that its appointment of Naravane indicates a budding policy shift?
At the Panjab University seminar, which was on Pakistan, he drew analogy from Pakistan's case, saying, "This (Pakistani praetorianism) is in stark contrast to India where the armed forces owe allegiance to the Constitution, and not to any party, person or religion." He would do well to keep his words to the fore. The state of civil-military relations he inherits is best illustrated by the recent statement by his successor in Kolkata, Lt Gen Anil Chauhan, praising the government’s Citizenship Amendment Act as another instance of hard decision making on its part.
Kolkata oversees the areas that are likely to see most instability from this Act and its follow on legislation, on the National Register of Citizens. With unrest bound to proceed till next end decade occasioned by following through with this ideological tilting at the windmills by the government, the military may well give up any thought of measuring up to the China threat with its hinterland beset by agitations over detentions camps into the decade. As a first step he may have to rein in Chauhan, incidentally, the military operations head who was seconded by Ranbir Singh in the above mentioned second tiff with Hooda.
By this yardstick, Naravane is the right man and at the right time for the job. Now if he will only advise the government - prone acting hastily on its ideological and parochial political compulsions – to keep ideology from contaminating strategy.