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Chandigarh: Despite the embarrassment of riches of high-powered consultative and advisory bodies and think tanks that sustain India’s higher strategic and military planning realms, their overall potency appears somewhat feeble in critical national security matters, like the continually deferred appointment of India’s Chief of Defence Staff or CDS.
For a defence and security establishment that recently tom-tommed indigenising the manufacture of nuts and bolts as part of its ‘Atmanirbhar’ initiative, aimed at augmenting materiel self-sufficiency, and which also publicises the minutiae of almost all military activity, the radio silence over the CDS’s nomination by all such highfalutin bodies is indeed, intriguing.
India has been without a CDS for nearly five months after the previous incumbent General Bipin Rawat died in a helicopter crash in Tamil Nadu last December. But few, if any, in India’s upper military and national security echelons have any inkling whatsoever regarding General Rawat’s successor, to the extent of even fuelling speculation as to whether this crucial appointment will even be imminently executed.
Military circles countrywide are awash with speculation and hearsay regarding the next CDS, with many such worthies claiming to have an ‘inner track’ on the matter, only to be repeatedly stymied by the governments taciturnity. In recent days, after the Chief of Army Staff (CoAS) General M.M. Naravane superannuated on 30 April, surmise over the next CDS now centres around recently retired military personnel as possible contenders. This conjecture has gained further credence, as it’s widely accepted in the armed forces that neither of the three present service chiefs are likely to be given the top job.
In such a muddled and enigmatic milieu, conspiracy theories proliferate.
One such theory, which has gained credibility in military circles, is that the delay in the CDS’s appointment is a sinister scheme hatched by the bureaucracy, forever trying to put one over the services to keep them subordinate to civilian rule. It further avers that this ‘power hungry’ civil servant lobby in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is anxious to retrieve control over several spheres it had been forced to cede to General Rawat as part of his remit, following his December 2019 elevation as CDS.
“This delay (in appointing a CDS) has put us in an undesirable situation, as this is one post that cannot be left vacant for long,” said former CoAS General V.P. Malik. The CDS’s post is as, if not more, important than that of the three service chiefs and the enduring delay in fixing the appointment had triggered “speculation and suspense”, he said in a recent interview to The Wire. Such a state of affairs was “undesirable”, the former army chief categorically added but declined to elaborate.
The deferred appointment
And though eventually, the new CDS will be confirmed by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet, which since 2016 comprises just two members – Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah – the apparent exclusion of any input from the slew of high-powered federal security and defence planning committee is equally surprising. In most democracies, such influential bodies normally assist their respective governments in shaping military policy and overall strategic postures, of which the shortlisting a CDS undoubtedly rates supreme.
However, senior retired and serving military officers and defence analysts told The Wire that all such groups appeared not to be involved in any advisory manner whatsoever in this vital nomination, leaving the final decision regarding the new CDS exclusively to the Prime Minister’s Office which was preoccupied with innumerable other considerations.
Heading this advisory list is the high-rolling Defence Policy Group or DPG created in April 2018 as an ‘overarching’ body to manage India’s defence and security strategy, prepare military capability plans, fast-track materiel acquisitions and augment military diplomacy and the attendant Strategic Policy Group or SPG, revamped some six months later the same year. The latter’s founding responsibility was to foster inter-ministerial co-ordination and integration of relevant inputs formulating national security policies of which, once again, the CDS was an integral component.
Both organisations are headed by the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, and their membership too was more or less analogous, comprising the three service chiefs and the defence and foreign secretaries. DPG members also include the federal revenue secretary and Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee – a responsibility that transferred itself to the CDS in December 2019. The Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), also headed by the CDS, was designated the secretariat of the DPC that encompassed four sub-committees to execute its responsibilities.
SPG membership, on the other hand, was larger and included heads of the domestic and overseas intelligence gathering agencies, the cabinet secretary and the respective secretaries of home, finance, defence production, revenue, atomic energy and space. The scientific advisor to the defence minister and the NITI Aayog vice-chairman too were members of the SPG which was earlier chaired by the cabinet secretary, who, after its refurbishment and expansion, now reports to the NSA.
“These new institutions have yet to produce a single open-source document, white paper or policy statement on India’s strategic outlook and objectives,” defence analyst Rear Admiral Raja Menon (retired) said recently. He wrote in The Wire last December saying that “even a dictatorial, autocratic, authoritarian government like China had continuously turned out strategy documents, policy and white papers, despite accusations of their functioning being opaque.”
The two-star retired naval officer added that “the underlying weakness of the Indian government is its opacity and lack of intellectual debate in affairs strategic”. He goes on to disappointingly state that the wide discrepancy within the government on the state of the world in 2030 or 2035 results in policies that don’t give the impression of any policy coherence emanating from New Delhi. In short, Admiral Menon warned of India’s strategic drift in turbulent times not only in its neighbourhood, but also globally.
It is nobody’s case that internal deliberations of either the DPG or the SPG be publicised, as their workings are without doubt classified. But senior retired and serving service personnel and defence analysts agreed that both organisations had little or no output to show for themselves over the past four years. “Nothing of much policy import has been forthcoming from either the DPG or the SPG whose meetings too have been infrequent,” said a senior army officer declining to be named. They remain mere talking shops, he added.
These seemingly exalted bodies are further supplemented by a host of think tanks backed by either the MoD or hand-held by the individual services.
These included the MP Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in Delhi, the country’s foremost think tank whose founding charter encompassed advanced research in defence, strategic and security issues, amongst other related matters. However, in recent years, the IDSA had lost its mojo, with its advisory and academic performance qualitatively waning compared to its earlier performance and relevance in formulating security policy.
Furthermore, there were the three service-sponsored think tanks: the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), the National Maritime Foundation (NMF) and Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), all operating out of Delhi. Supplementing them was the high maintenance but low performance Centre for Joint Warfare Studies (CENJOWS), created in 2007 in Delhi to ‘rise above sectoral and departmental legacies and to examine joint warfare and synergy issues in their entirety’, a sphere of activity that ironically duplicated the responsibilities of the CDS.
However, all these cerebral workshops, which were usually hyperactive in conducting seminars and discussions on global strategic matters and national defence policies, remain silent on the important CDS matter.
Perhaps, what they all privately anticipate is unlikely to occur; and what they least except is likely to transpire.