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Is Doval the reason there's no CDS?

By Ajai Shukla
May 13, 2022 14:48 IST
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Gen Bipin Rawat's appointment, first as army chief superseding two other army commanders, and then as CDS, was the consequence of his close personal rapport with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.

Now, with General Rawat gone and nobody named to replace him as CDS, it is evident that no other top military officer enjoys that relationship with Doval, observes Ajai Shukla.

IMAGE: National Security Advisor Ajit Kumar Doval with then army chief late General Bipin Rawat, then navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh and then air chief Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhadauria, October 15, 2019. Photograph: ANI Photo
 

Five months have elapsed since a helicopter crash claimed the life of Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, but the Indian military continues to remain headless and directionless with no successor to General Rawat.

While each of the three services -- the army, navy and air force -- has its own chief, General Rawat's elevation as the tri-service chief on January 1, 2020, had been expected to improve inter-service coordination, cooperation and operational integration.

As CDS, General Rawat was also responsible for creating the structures of the geographical integrated theatre commands, with each one containing elements of all three services, enabling cohesive and effective operations. All this now hangs in the balance.

The apex structures of tri-service command were first proposed by the Kargil Review Committee in 1999 and echoed in a group of ministers report two years later.

However, neither the first full-term Bharatiya Janata Party-led government (1999-2004), nor the two Congress-led governments (2004-2014) that followed, took any concrete action to bell the cat.

The creation of a CDS was eventually left to Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi's government, a year into its second term, after the first term saw significant groundwork that underpinned the tri-service structures.

General Rawat's appointment, first as army chief superseding two other army commanders, and then as CDS, was the consequence of his close personal rapport with National Security Advisor Ajit Kumar Doval.

Now, with General Rawat gone and nobody named to replace him as CDS, it is evident that no other top military officer enjoys that relationship with Doval.

The NSA argues that there is no hurry in appointing a CDS since it is not an operational appointment.

The army chief's post is an operational one that cannot be kept empty and so, with army chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane's retirement, General Manoj Chandrashekhar Pande, the senior-most officer after him, has been duly appointed army chief.

However, Doval knows that the appointment of a CDS and the implementation of tri-service theatre commands would almost certainly dilute the NSA's power. The NSA has no defined charter, whereas a CDS would have one. A strong CDS would assert himself within that charter.

Initially, none of the key stakeholders -- the NSA, service chiefs, the ministry of defence bureaucracy -- were keen on a CDS.

However, Modi, who is convinced of the utility of a tri-service commander, went beyond the Naresh Chandra committee's recommendations of a 'permanent chairman, chiefs of staff' and appointed not just a CDS but also a department of military affairs, which was anathema to the Indian Administration Service lobby, especially within the defence ministry.

A whisper campaign in the corridors of power also cites a political rationale for not announcing a new CDS.

The system is not ready for a navy or an air force CDS, and the two army candidates, Generals Pande and Naravane, are both Maharashtrians with rumoured linkages to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Nitin Gadkari -- who are both regarded by Modi and Home Minister Amit Anilchandra Shah as rival power centres.

In the circumstances, neither General Pande nor General Naravane can be regarded as a suitable candidate for the CDS post.

While Doval will have a major role in shortlisting candidates for top military posts, the final decision, with veto power, will lie with Messrs Modi and Shah.

Meanwhile, Modi has invested time and effort into getting to know his top generals, admirals and air marshals -- one of whom he must elevate to the CDS.

Just four months after his election in May 2014, he attended his first annual combined commanders conference in Delhi, where he received briefings from the three service chiefs. An unimpressed PM told confidants that his service chiefs were lacking in imagination. That combined commanders conference saw no substantive discussion about creating a CDS.

Always one for a spectacle, Modi ordered that the next combined commanders conference, scheduled for December 2015, be held on board the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, off Visakhapatnam.

However, the briefings he received from the service chiefs were again unimaginative and hackneyed, causing him to give the combined commanders a sharp rap on their collective knuckles.

He acidly stated that, instead of insignificant inanities, he wanted the service chiefs to spell out their vision for jointness. He wanted to be briefed on where each service had stood 20 years ago, where they were today and what their targets were for the next 20 years.

Rattling the commanders-in-chief with his penchant for details, the PM demanded to know when and how the services had last modified their training standards.

He asked how services were selecting their defence advisors for the embassies abroad.

He ordered the selection of ambassadors and defence advisors five years before they reached their duty stations so that they had time for preparation.

However, there was no substantive discussion on jointness.

This changed dramatically in 2017, when the prime minister's office stepped in to impose a clear theme for the combined commanders conference.

Riding roughshod over the Integrated Defence Staff, which traditionally organised the combined commanders conference, the PMO testily ordered that discussion be centred around tri-service jointness and theaterisation.

The discussion started in the morning and continued till 4 pm.

Modi sat with rapt attention, allowing each commander-in-chief to speak without interruption.

A key participant described it thus: "The discussion between 22 theatre commanders, all pulling in opposite directions, was utterly pedestrian. It must have been absolutely clear to the PM that the commanders had not met and had a proper discussion earlier."

Another participant conveyed his personal impression in these words: "Modi had come with the clear intention of announcing the CDS. But the pathetic level of debate indicated that the services were not ready."

At the end of the day Modi gave directions: 'The three service chiefs will stay here and talk amongst yourselves and within one month, give me six actionable points towards jointness.'

The commander-in-chief of the Integrated Defence Staff (the only existing tri-service structure) put his job on the line by telling Modi: 'The three chiefs seldom meet and never send up contentious issues to you. Only the lowest common denominator points come to you.'

The PM was reportedly shocked.

Yet, months later, there was no progress towards jointness. One of the service chiefs admitted that the PM was completely fed up with the military brass.

Modi, at that stage, had lost interest in CDS and jointness.

In April 2018, one of the participants said a disgusted "PMO ne moonh mord liya hai fauj se (the PMO had turned its face away from the military)."

With the 2019 elections looming, Modi put the CDS issue on the backburner.

But with a stronger mandate in those elections, the prime minister felt he could push through the CDS appointment.

General Rawat was appointed CDS, but his untimely demise has sent the issue back to the start line.

Where is theaterisation going?

An influential school of thought is arguing for three theatre commands, one with each service: A Pakistan Land Theatre with an air force commander; a China Land Theatre with an army commander; and a Maritime Theatre commanded by the navy.

However, the army demands a separate Northern Command, which encompasses the insurgency-roiled areas of Kashmir.

General Rawat dangled the carrot of an Air Defence Theatre command for the IAF that covers the entire country's air space, but the air force rejected that, arguing that it was already in charge of the entire country's air defence.

This infighting needs to be resolved by the PM, who must ensure the three chiefs take ownership of the CDS project.

Modi should tell them: 'Take over a theatre each, and we'll make it a four-star appointment. Vice chiefs will stay back and continue handling the service. Those who oppose the concept may please resign.'

Then watch how quickly joint theatres come into being.

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Ajai Shukla
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