Tuesday, 5 April 2022


What’s holding up the Chief of Defence Staff?

Narendra Modi’s ‘deep selection’ travails

The latest set of military appointments has been announced. So, what’s holding up the announcement on the most-awaited appointment: the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS)? News reports have it that it is axiomatic that the officiating Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (CCOSC), General Naravane, will be made its Permanent Chairman, being appointed CDS, and in his place Lt Gen Pande, will step up from being Army Vice Chief to its Chief.

Since General Naravane retires month end, there is no hurry; both Naravane and Pande already being familiar with their briefs. Naravane wears one of the CDS’ three hats – the other two being CDS itself and Secretary Department of Military Affairs; while Pande was brought in to Delhi on retirement of the then Vice Chief, General Mohanty, end January. Therefore, there is little sense in speculating on the next incumbents of the two posts. Even so, this begs the question why does the government wait longer, when it can wrap up the mystery right now?

There were reasons – at a stretch - for it to wait for the announcement this long when it could well have made the announcement mid-December itself when Naravane was appointed officiating CCOSC – filling one of the three pairs of shoes of General Rawat, who died in an unfortunate helicopter accident mid December. However, reports have it that it was not interested in making any of the three senior most army officers then – Generals Mohanty, Joshi and Shukla - Army Chief, if it pushed Naravane up to take over Rawat’s chair.

Not that the government need have waited out these three generals to retire before making its moves. It has reportedly adopted a policy of ‘deep selection’ for higher military appointments and was, in any case, within its rights to appoint anyone following due procedure. Its hesitance could mean it has ditched the deep selection policy, bandied about to cover up the distasteful manner Rawat was made Army Chief over heads of two of his perhaps more able seniors – Bakshi and Haris. There was a vile whisper campaign launched prior to undermine the frontrunner – General Bakshi.

The controversy over the superseding perhaps dissuaded the government this time round from rocking the boat. Therefore, it has held its horses this long, even though keeping the nascent CDS chair vacant for some four months does little for the institutional credibility of the CDS office. In fact, it shows the government undercutting yet another of its policy moves – creation of the CDS – that it likes to take much credit for. Since policy consistency does not appear hallmark of the government - well known for its policy twists and surprises - it is not impossible that the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet – that incidentally has all of two members (prime minister and home minister) - can yet pull a rabbit out of its hat.

That it has not been able to pull out the rabbit so far owes to its sensitivity to the political inclinations of prospective incumbents to higher military office. A case to point is that of General Rawat. Rawat’s proximity to National Defence Advisor Ajit Doval not only owed to a shared ethnicity, but also to like-mindedness. Rawat repaid the faith the regime reposed in him by dutifully mouthing its ideological wares, besides obediently implementing the military side of its policies. The latter is only superficially the way things ought to be. Obedience is fair, but ‘haan mein haan milana’ (“Yes sir, three bags full, Sir!) at the policy-making stage is seldom good. Such obedience springs from the former, like-mindedness. The problem is that there is then a tendency to fall in line with the drift of the deliberations, or worse, modifying one’s input by guessing what’s the expectation is and aligning with it.

Rawat’s falling in line with the government’s Kashmir policy is illustrative. Not only did he set the stage for the voiding of Article 370 by a diligent conduct of Operation All Out prior, but also ensured the military’s participation in strangulation of the Kashmiri voice thereafter. It is easy to see that the Kashmir problem has merely been kicked down the road. True, the explosion expected has not occurred, but that does not mean – as information war will have it – that all will remain hunky dory in Kashmir. Such a consequence should have been input into the government’s decision. The government’s assumption that it has ‘solved’ the Kashmir problem should have had to reckon with input from the army to the contrary. As head of the lead counter insurgency force and repository of expertise on military security, Rawat should have taken recourse to a democratic exercise of his advisory function. The costs of this are not merely in the future in Kashmir, but already apparent in China’s walking into Ladakh and our interminable counter deployment there. That Rawat fell in line with the government’s ideological agenda in Kashmir owed to his political predisposition, evidenced – as pointed out earlier – by his several interventions backing the regime on matters essentially political and out of the military remit.

This is learning of sorts for the regime as it consolidates its ideological agenda. It has transformed political culture. It is seeking to likewise influence strategic culture. Its cheerleaders have already announced that its surgical strikes by land and air and showing up China at Doklam and in Ladakh have duly transformed strategic culture. Organisational culture of the military is next in line. The prime minister has required a turning to ancient texts and traditional wisdom for organizational inspiration. Sanskritic lexicon from shastras, signifying the switch from India to Bharat, India to New India, is abroad, with the foreign minister leading the way devoting a chapter in his book for the learning from Mahabharata. The prime minister’s call has been dutifully echoed by the Army Chief and formerly uniformed strategic community members, with none asking for inclusion of the entire spectrum of historical inheritance to figure, including the medieval period – which the prime minister presumably wishes is wholly appropriated by Pakistan. The modern period – even if colonial - also has its value for the military, considering its institutional roots lie in the period. From this is clear the government does not need a professional going about his business nor one merely pliable, but a believer in its project transforming India in a particular, majoritarian way.

Does this hold up the prospects of Naravane and Pande? Not that it should matter 50 years on, but Naravane’s schooling was in a right wing affiliated school. However, Naravane has elsewhere expressed his belief in Constitutionalism, unremarkable at any other time. The media was quick to pick a gap between his approach and that of Rawat, when it probed him on Rawat’s implied criticism of the anti Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protestors. As is his wont, Naravane was correct in his answers. He has most recently in his Army Day Message emphasized the Army’s ‘secular credentials’, foolhardy in the context of the times.

As for Pande, he has nothing to show by way of virtue signaling in terms of right wing affinities for the government to pick him. He also is an Engineer, a combat support arm that has not managed to run the gauntlet all the way to the Chief’s post so far. Its most eminent product, General Bhagat, was pipped at the post by Indira Gandhi, tweaking the Army’s proverbial line up so that an ethnic kin Kashmiri Pandit, General Raina, would be better placed to take over. Should the government to pick Pande – having seen three seniors of his seniors off into retirement – it would make him beholden to it. This is a useful gimmick, quite like when it persisted with its predecessor-government appointed Chief, General Dalbir Singh, despite his feud with a predecessor army chief and ruling party stalwart, VK Singh.

If the government has not exercised its choice as yet, it is possible that it is still at deep selection of sorts, looking out for virtue signaling, not only from the brass but from the retired lot as well. It is easy to spot a trend on this. The military adviser it appointed in the National Security Council Secretariat is a general who in service made the right noises on the CAA protests. This is of a piece with the nature of its non-military appointments as well, valid also for retired officer receipients of its patronage. One way to ascertain this is to see the cringe-worthy Youtube mouthings of recipients of largesse. Not that these officers are not capable, but the nature of the regime is such that capability and achievement is insufficient to land a sinecure to continue in public life.

A simpler reason could be that the government is looking out for another CDS, putting paid to Naravane’s chances. This rules in a non-Army CDS. The popular view is that the initial couple of holders of the CDS post should be Army men since the military is Army centric. Riding for the Air Force is that since the principal task that Rawat has left unfinished is the way ahead on jointness, an Air warrior might be best for the post since he would know how to cope with the Air Force’s reservations on jointness. Those plugging for the silent Service might have it that being neutral between the Army and Air Force argument on jointness, an admiral might best fit the bill. For those recently retired who fancy their lot, Youtube and Twitter are the right spaces to spot virtue signaling on this count.

However, to wait into the fourth month is inordinately long. If Naravane was not to be CDS, the government did not really need to be so sensitive to his reaction, withholding the announcement. At best he would have resigned, causing a momentary embarrassment for the government without a dent in its electoral chances in Uttar Pradesh, then beset with election fever. So the holdup seems to be not so much for professional or pliable incumbents, but committed ones. It’s to the military’s credit that there is no virtue signaling going on as was the case earlier, when Rawat as Chief and CDS set the tone. It’s not known if Naravane has cracked a whip, but it has made a difference enough to make problematic the regime’s deep selection.

That it is taking this long only goes to prove the premium put on deep selection, understandable in the run up to 2024 national elections. Hypothetically, the incumbents of the two chairs might willy nilly end up momentarily the most significant men in India if those elections were for some reason to go wrong for the regime.

Maybe the regime needs reminding that it need not be so careful. The military ethic was best articulated by General Bucher, Commander-in-Chief, Indian Army, at the Indian Military Academy in May 1948, when he said: “No Army which concerns itself with politics is of any value…It follows, therefore, that the slightest right to question the policy of the Government. Implicit obedience to the orders of the Government is essential and only in this manner will the interests of the country be fully served.” Since this is a colonial legacy, does the regime wish it be discarded? Just as Indira wanted a committed bureaucracy, maybe New India’s military needs a change to the apolitical ethos of its military to one suitable for a Hindu India?

Be that as it may, under the circumstance, both Naravane and Pande are the front runners to respective post, as should be the case. Therefore, it is beholden for the government not to play musical chairs and get on with the announcement without demur. That is continues to be hesitant only serves to unhinge the brass from the straight and narrow, to not only being but also  broadcasting their availability for the regime’s purpose. This is anti-institutional and to the extent the government is responsible, it is cutting the branch it sits on. A military in disarray cannot be put back by regime favourites.