The Agenda for the New Chief

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General Naravane takes over as army chief at the turn of the year. His agenda has already been set for him by his predecessor, whose tenure over the past three years witnessed a trend towards politicization of the army. Naravane needs to roll back the damage done by General Bipin Rawat, even if Bipin Rawat is lucky enough to be kicked upstairs as chief of defence staff by year end when he retires.

The likelihood of the latter is very much there since reports have it that all that remains to be done is for the prime minister to sign off on the CDS agenda. If this was not the case then it would not have taken the government so long to announce the name of the next chief, earlier done some two months in advance, though admittedly the Modi regime has been less than punctilious in observing this procedural nicety.

Since the CDS has been in the offing for long, delays have been attributed to the government making up its mind on the first incumbent and his mandate. In actuality, the government perhaps wants to heat up the race for the top job with senior three star brass lining up to signal their ideological propinquity.

The latest illustration of this trend is in the eastern army commander, General Anil Chauhan, under whose territorial jurisdiction the security fallout of the Citizen Amendment Act (CAA) and the soon-to-follow National Register of Citizens bill will mostly to play out, stating that the controversial CAA was product of hard-nosed decision making of the government. It is well known that deep selection for the CDS post is being done with three star army command level officers in the run. The eastern army commander, having been the military operations head when the Pulwama-Balakot episode played out, assumes he stands a fair chance and is leaving no stone unturned to broadcast to the government his likemindedness with it and therefore his ‘ease of doing business with’ or pliability quotient.

Naravane would have to reverse this trend set by his predecessor in his repeated forays into political territory, most notably once in his likening of a political party in Assam to a front for illegal immigrants (short hand for Bengali Muslims). Others have followed, such as the northern army commander, General Ranbir Singh, who publicly disagreed with his predecessor that surgical strikes have been in the army’s armoury on the Line of Control for long. The northern army commander had independently in December taken up cudgels with his predecessor, now retired General Hooda. He later on the last day of elections this year unnecessarily supported the yet again unnecessary election time assertion of Anil Chauhan, then military operations head, that the there was no record of any surgical strikes prior to the ones under Narendra Modi. This intervention by the military was in the controversy over the Congress claim that it had conducted six such operations in its time at the helm. There was no need for Anil Chauhan to underwrite the governments’ side of the debate nor for the army commander to step up in its defence.

It is not a malady confined to the army. The last air chief was at pains to point to the well known virtues of the Rafale aircraft, particularly since an underequipped F-16 shot down one of his Mig 21 Bison aircraft, which we are now informed by an American expert speaking at the military literature festival in Chandigarh this December that the Indian plane was superior to the Pakistan-owned American one. The expert, Christine Fair, went out of her way to underline that she was no friend of Pakistan when she made her comments, a well known fact since her book on the Pakistani army is a well regarded critique of that army.

At the event, the former air chief, now retired, Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa, rode his favourite hobby horse once again. While earlier bureaucratic lethargy and political pusillanimity in the United Progressive Alliance era was the subtext, in contrast to the Modi-Doval innovative short cuts of procedure by way of which Rafale purchases were fast forwarded in Paris, this time round Dhanoa – recently retired – was explicit with his critique and implicit contrast.

Missing in the air chief marshal’s perspective are two elements that make for the distinction between the strategic and political planes. One is affordability, since security expenditures have an opportunity cost. The second is merging of the security and diplomatic prongs of grand strategy to influence a neighbour. By this yardstick, there was no compulsion for the UPA government to fast track Rafale purchases.

Also, there was no compulsion for the successor government to move to a proactive strategic stance without first putting in place the elements necessary. It is no wonder then India suffered a set-back in its strategic proactivism, with Pakistan not only shooting down an Indian plane but also having the last crack at India in its riposte to Balakot. Since the Indians missed their target at Balakot, the Pakistanis were wise enough to convey a message by missing their three targets in the Rajauri-Naushera sector. For Dhanoa to now claim that they were ready to climb up the escalation ladder – despite its well known dangers including nuclear ones – only shows up the deficit of strategic level commanders strutting at the political level.

This exposé of the direction India’s civil-military relations have been headed in the Modi regime is to forewarn the army yet again on politicization. Since all institutions of governance have already fallen by the wayside, including arguably the Supreme Court, the army cannot be an exception. The more its generals advertise its susceptibility, the more likely will be such a denouement. Naravane can yet spare the army such fate.

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




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