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With New Notifications, Government Hints Next CDS Will Be a Three-Star Officer

The government could have elevated the recently superannuated General M.M. Naravane or any of the three service chiefs without changing the rules.

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Chandigarh: Exactly six months after India’s first chief of defence staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat died in a helicopter crash, the government has made its first procedural move over appointing his successor.

On Tuesday, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) issued notifications stating that any serving or retired three-star officer from either of the three services, below 62 years on the date of projected appointment, would be eligible to be elevated as the CDS and will superannuate at the age of 65. Earlier, the post was only open for four-star generals.

Though technically the new criteria make eligible numerous candidates – all three-star officers retire at 60 –  it is expected that only current and recently retired officers would be eligible for the country’s top military job, taking their overall number to around 50.

But no names were forthcoming, which only served to once again kickstart rumours and speculation in the fauji ‘langar’ or bush telegraph which, over the past few weeks, had exhausted itself after having deliberated all options ad nauseam over who would be India’s second CDS and secretary of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA). However, with the new notification, the guessing game is abuzz once more. It’s almost as if a book had been opened where the sweepstake for the lone winner was the CDS’s post.

“The amended rules for appointing a CDS, which amazingly took six whole months to materialise, reveals that the government is working to a definitive plan and had already shortlisted the CDS whose identity it would soon reveal,” said a two-star Indian Army officer. The notification also indicated the ‘strong likelihood’ of a three-star serving or retired officer being installed as CDS and positioned over the respective four-star service chiefs, he added, declining to be named for obvious reasons.

Other officers reasoned that since the government had not elevated either of the three service chiefs – General Manoj Pande, Air Chief Marshal Vivek Chanuhari and Admiral Hari Kumar – or the recently retired Army chief General M.M. Naravane, which it could easily have done without the enablement of the recent notification, it had ‘more or less’ decided on appointing a three-star officer as the CDS.

“The notification only indicates that the government is working backwards and putting all its ducks in line before announcing the new CDS,” said a three-star Indian Air Force (IAF) officer. It could not proceed without changing the service rules and it opted to widen the goalposts to make the selection, but without considering the wider command-and-control ramifications of such a move, he stated.

The hermetic decision-making process in the BJP-led administration that remains impervious to media pressure or even internal military manipulations, had significantly raised the overall suspense over the new CDS after General Rawat’s demise. A cross-section of serving and retired military officers, defence analysts and senior security officials said that just three people –  or the “triad” – were in the know of who the CDS could and eventually would be: Prime Minister Narendra Modi, home minister Amit Shah and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.

The former two would, as part of the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet, formally approve the CDS’s selection, while the latter would have played a critical advisory role, as he did earlier in the December 2019 appointment of General Rawat within days of him retiring as the Chief of Army Staff.

NSA Ajit Doval, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and home minister Amit Shah. Illustration: The Wire

It’s also widely believed in official circles that no one else, in either the MoD or the services power corridors of South Block and nearby Sena Bhawan, was even remotely aware of who the next CDS would be. It’s also anticipated amongst security officials that the incoming CDS would be from the Army, the oldest and largest of the three armed forces and which, operationally, was the most widely deployed and visible in its various internal security roles in Kashmir and in the northeast.

Moreover, these service officers and defence analysts concurred that Tuesday’s nomination also fuelled worrisome speculation over the Indian political establishment’s lack of confidence in the country’s existing top military brass. Furthermore, they said that the six-month hiatus in appointing a CDS also revealed that this post was not really a ‘critical cog’ in India’s higher defence management, aimed at augmenting military morale, furthering frazzled civil-military relations and facilitating elusive jointness between the three services to optimise operational outcomes in a turbulent neighbourhood.

“With its extended laxity, the government has shown over the previous six months that the CDS position is in effect just a box that needs to be ticked off,” said a retired three-star Indian Navy officer. The breathlessness exhibited over General Rawat’s appointment, he observed, was in inverse proportion to the overall disinterest and indifference the government has displayed in choosing his successor.

Why was the pool expanded?

Nevertheless it is not known what exactly prompted Tuesday’s notification which, in turn, seems to have precipitated the imminence of the government naming a CDS.

And while the response to this query too is seemingly regulated by the triad’s code of omerta, military sources conjectured that in all probability it had been prompted principally by two factors: the impending announcement of the military’s Tour of Duty (TOD) or Agnipath short-term lapsable service personnel recruitment policy and the recent handing over to the DMA of analyses by the respective services on creating integrated theatre commands (ITCs).

Also Read: ‘Uncalled For’: Military Insiders Warn Against ‘Agnipath’ Recruitment Scheme

The ToD envisages the contractual recruitment of jawans for four years, after which they would all be demobilised. But a quarter of them would be re-inducted for full-time employment with the aim of reducing India’s ballooning pension pay-outs. This prospect reportedly appeals greatly to the government as a way to reduce proliferating unemployment in uncertain economic times. The ITC assessments, on the other hand, had been requisitioned by General Rawat in late 2021 with the aim of instituting four or five tri-service commands by 2023 to replace the existing 17 individual commands in order to optimise war-fighting assets in managing future conflicts.

In this December 7, 2021 file photo, Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat speaks at DRDO Bhawan in New Delhi. Photo: PTI/Arun Sharma

“The optics of both schemes had immense political appeal, but the government needed an overarching CDS to oversee them,” said the earlier mentioned two-star army officer. Without direct supervision, both schemes would flounder and hence a CDS was imperative to superintend them, he declared. But he cautioned against ‘turbulence’ and ‘friction’ if a retired three-star officer was appointed the CDS.

“In a status-conscious military, where upward mobility is ordained by seniority and one in which pensioners are considered ‘has-been’s, it’s going to be difficult if a retiree is foisted upon the forces by the government as the next CDS,” he said. In fact, the situation could turn unpleasant as the CDS was deemed the primus inter pares or ‘first amongst equals’, alongside the three other service chiefs.

Less brass on the retiree CDS’s shoulders is almost certain to be problematic, he added in an attempt at black humour.