The Chief of Defence Staff appointment: An inauspicious beginning

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Since several committees have recommended the creation of the appointment of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) or equivalent position, here issue is not taken with the government finally getting round to creating the post. The problem is the maneuvering – amounting to musical chairs – attending the naming of its first incumbent.

That the creation of the position has been on the national security adviser’s plate has been known for some time. Apparently the scope of the job is being worked on even as the prime minister in his independence day address has given a go-ahead for the appointment in principle.

In the main, there are two candidates for the job, the air chief, who is currently the first among equals as chairman of the chiefs committee, and who retires earlier, and the army chief. Clearly, there is no stopping the government from choosing from a wider range of candidates that can include the whole batch of commanders-in-chief. When Colin Powell landed the job in the United States he stepped over the hopes of over a score of compatriots.

However, for the moment, the army chief appears to be ahead in the race, or at least his media minders are doing a better job than that of the others. Most news items carrying the announcement have his mug shot accompanying. One media outlet helpfully informed that since the job description of the appointment is still being worked out, it may well happen that the air chief retires in the interim, enabling the army chief to step up timely.

The precedence set by the Modi government of deep selection for apex appointments and its adoption of this as policy throws open career paths. This is a bane that requires streamlining over time as the organization adapts to the new system.

For instance, even as the file of the next air chief is in an advanced stage of consideration, his potential successor, the next in line as per the traditional system of seniority, has already fired off a preemptive salvo indicating that he worries of being pipped at the post by someone junior.

The situation is grimmer in the army and therein lies the tale.

The army commander northern command has been rather zealous in doing his duty, best explained by his not topping the seniority table. At the top is the eastern army commander. Unfortunately for the eastern army commander, ever since India burnt its fingers at Doklam by standing up to China somewhat prematurely, the Wuhan spirit – resulting from a Xi-Modi informal summit held at India’s request – has been invoked to keep things quiet on his front. This is best evidenced by the mountain strike corps – the conventional deterrent being shaped for that front – being finally benched, citing lack of resources.

This has brightened the chances of the northern army commander, who does not seem to have wasted any time cashing in. He was up front in dismissing the case of his predecessor in his chair – the hero of the surgical strikes after the Uri incident – that the army is no stranger to surgical strikes. According to the northern army commander the first surgical strikes were the ones he announced in his prior capacity as director general military operations. Charitably it can be said that this may be a problem of defining surgical strike.

Equally, uncharitably – and perhaps more accurately – it can be taken as a way for the army commander to cotton up with the political powers-that-be, since the mantle for intiation of surgical strikes then is not one that the Modi-Doval combine need share with the Congress. Recall, the background to the exchange was in the Congress making a counter claim that it was no less doughty than the Modi-Doval duo, having presided over some six such strikes in its time.

The positioning of the northern army commander now appears unassailable. He is currently overseeing the largest lockdown witnessed in Kashmir over its thirty years of troubles. Clearly, his input for the decision that has led to this clampdown has been that the security forces can manage the aftermath of the constitutional jiggery-pokery on the special status of Kashmir. He is now delivering on his promise. The jury is still out on whether he will succeed, unblemished by civilians being killed as collateral damage.

Of consequence here is that he provided the input – one mediated by his higher headquarters – that amounts to music to the political master’s ears. That the army headquarters – headed by General Bipin Rawat – has amplified this music is easier explained.

What this suggests is that the policy of deep selection of military ranks has an unacceptable underside. It is very much possible that in this case the generals in question have provided a professional view. The problem is that their intrinsic personal interests cannot be overlooked.

Persisting with the example, it can easily be seen that an input that suggests security forces can handle the immediate aftermath of a loosening of the lockdown; the heightened insurgency thereafter; an intensified Pakistani proxy war; and a possible escalation in an India-Pakistan war can only be a rather glib input.

It is certain that the claims of governance and development being reached to Kashmir by ending of its special status will have to wait till the military first manages to return stability to Kashmir. The preceding thirty years of troubles suggests this will likely take a lot longer than the Modi-Shah-Doval tenure at the helm, howsoever stretched by successive election wins.

It almost seems as though that the CDS appointment is thus more as a reward to those whose input has oiled the government’s unconscionable decision – specifically the army chief and the northern army commander, both of whom stand to be elevated as a result. That would be an unfortunate start for the appointment.

Even so, it is not impossible that both are left standing by the wayside if their input is disproved by the onrush of events.

Ali Ahmed is visiting professor at the Nelson Mandela Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia.



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