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Here's Why the Appointment of India's Second CDS Is Likely to Be Deferred for a While

This appointment has now become inextricably linked to who will be named the next Indian Army Chief.

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Chandigarh: The appointment of India’s second Chief of Defence Staff or CDS to succeed General Bipin Rawat who died in a helicopter crash last month, is likely to be deferred for the immediate future, linked as it has reportedly become to shortlisting the next Indian Army (IA) chief.

Senior serving and retired service officers told The Wire that this state of affairs had arisen as, in all likelihood, the IA Chief of Staff General Manoj Naravane, who had succeeded General Rawat to head the force on December 31, 2019, and worked closely with him thereafter, would eventually be elevated as CDS.

Military sources said there was ‘general consensus’ in government circles on General Naravane becoming CDS, as that would not only ensure continuance in the smooth functioning of this recent multifaceted appointment, but obviate ‘inbuilt impediments’ in pursuing alternatives that included the possible elevation of recently retired servicemen to this top military job. Other than being the single-point advisor on military matters to the defence minister, the CDS is also the Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, and Secretary of the newly created Department of Military Affairs or DMA.

Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Gen Bipin Rawat with Army Chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane (L) Navy Chief Admiral Karambir Singh (2ndL) and Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhadauria at South Block lawns in New Delhi, Wednesday, Jan 1, 2020. Photo: PTI/Kamal Kishore

General Naravane is also the senior-most of the three service chiefs and his eligibility as CDS is further reinforced by the prevailing agreement amongst senior defence and security officials, however flawed, that India’s first two – or even three – CDSs needed to be from the army.

Being the oldest and largest of the three armed forces, it is also operationally the most widely deployed or in short, the primus inter pares or first amongst equals of the three services.

Additionally, during his nearly two years as CDS, General Rawat had been doggedly pursuing the Indian military’s ‘theaterisation’, and service officers and defence analysts argue that General Naravane’s close association in this endeavour would serve to fast-track his predecessor’s goal of service jointness. This latter objective is focused on reducing 17 existing individual service commands, scattered nationwide, into five cohesive multi-force units or Integrated Theatre Commands.

Furthermore, General Naravane’s seniority over his naval and air force counterparts had ensured his appointment as Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee on December 15, within a week of General Rawat’s demise. And though this was a temporary measure till the new CDS is agreed, many servicemen regarded this move as a precursor to General Naravane’s eventual promotion to CDS.

Such a move, however, had the unanticipated and ‘knotty’ consequence of nominating a new IA chief in the forces hugely complex and finely balanced promotion structure which, for decades, has been affixed rigidly to service seniority. Several senior retired IA officers enumerated some likely and seemingly credible options.

Imminently appointing General Naravane as CDS, they stated, before completion of his term as IA chief on April 30 would, on the template of seniority, render eligible three officers in the lieutenant general rank to succeed him.

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These included the IA’s Vice Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General C.P. Mohanty, Northern Army Commander Lt Gen. Y.K. Joshi in Udhampur, under whose watch the Chinese military’s ingress into Ladakh took place in May 2020 and Lt Gen. Raj Shukla, head of the Army Training Command (ARTRAC) in Shimla.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with chief of defence staff General Bipin Rawat (left) and army chief General M.M. Naravane (right) during in his visit to Ladakh in July 2020. Photo: PMO

The former two officers, however, retire at the end of this month, while Lt Gen. Shukla superannuates a month later on February 28. Regrettably, all three were purportedly deemed as ‘not acceptable’ to the authorities for assorted reasons, sources said, but declined to elaborate.

But if General Naravane becomes CDS sometime in March, or alternately serves out his full term till the end of the following month, two other three-star officers become entitled to succeed him. These include Lt Gen. Manoj Pande, at present the Eastern Army Commander in Kolkata, who retires later this year, and the Southern Army Commander Lt Gen. J.S. Nain at Pune whose service tenure ends in 2023.

Coincidentally, General Naravane’s age too favoured him, as he would be 62 years upon retirement in April, or slightly less before, potentially giving him three years as CDS, who can serve till the age of 65.

The aforementioned officers said this organisational situation presented the authorities several alternatives with regard to conceivably determining the next IA chief. They also stated that in recent years the government had disregarded the long-standing benchmark of seniority in the IA, upending its sacrosanct ‘line of succession’ by appointing General Rawat as Army Chief in December 2016 by superseding two of his seniors. Subsequently, he went on to become India’s first CDS three years later, in December 2019.

Such measures, nevertheless had triggered widespread allegations by service personnel and security analysts of the burgeoning military-politician nexus that guaranteed both entities reciprocal benefit. It was no secret that many senior service personnel were increasingly identifying themselves with the administration which, in turn sought unashamedly to exploit military achievements for political  gain. A host of military officers frequently acknowledged in print and on social media that since 2014, ‘partisan  expediency’ had been factored into several tactical military plans and wider strategic decisions. This symbiotic liaison had benefited either side, equally.

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Writing in The Tribune newspaper on January 12, retired defence analyst Major General Ashok Mehta declared that the ‘incumbent government had created conditions for the negative political re-orientation of the services. Railing against the rapid politicisation of senior army personnel, eager to please the government, he provided myriad instances of service standard operating procedures (SOPs) being altered unobtrusively to ‘apparently Hinduise, even saffronise the secular fighting forces’.

Screengrab from the viral video showing Army men while a Hindu devotional song is played in the background. Photo: YouTube Screengrab.

The former two-star officer went on to declare that ‘previously generals would write notes of protestation (to the government) against this or that event which they regarded as being political (and) likely to adversely influence the homogeneity and secular credentials of the armed forces.

“That” General Mehta warned” seems to be changing now”.

Another eminent analyst Lt Gen. Prakash Menon of the Takshashila Institution in Bengaluru, went a step further when he recently declared that the ‘government has for sure tasted blood by leveraging the military for partisan politics’. Writing in The Print on December 21, the former military adviser to the National Security Council asserted that ‘realistically it would be vain to expect the politicians who have tasted electoral  success of military symbolism to change course’. He also decried ‘professional pliancy’ on the military’s part to pander to politicians.

In the meantime, military officers agreed that time is on the governments side to appoint a CDS, as there is no urgency in making that appointment as the latter exercises no operational responsibilities which rest with the individual service chiefs. Conveniently, there were also no rules, nor precedence, in appointing a CDS.

Eventually, however, the CDS – and the Indian Army Chief – will be confirmed by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet or the ACC which since 2016 comprises just two members – Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah. Earlier, the Minister heading the concerned department – in this instance the Ministry of Defence – too was part of the ACC, but no longer.

Perhaps this short chain of command will make both critical military appointments unproblematic.