Political scientist Samuel Huntington observed that for much of American history, its military had retained “the outlook of an estranged minority”. The same could be said in the Indian context, too. The sense of diminishment of the institution of the Indian Armed Forces vis-à-vis its civilian/political masters is not new. A cursory look at the official Warrant of Precedence revised periodically over the last 75 years is a story in itself. It’s a story of a consistent slide, irrespective of who holds the government reins.
Today, despite inflated attempts at almost wrapping themselves in the tri-colour ("desh ka sipahi jo muh tod jawab deta hai", or, "India's soldier who gives a fitting response"), enlisting garrulous veterans as ‘newsroom warriors’, and ‘Bollywood-ising’ the olive-green folks (“How’s the Josh?”), the politico-military dissonance, especially amongst the ranks of apolitical (but politically aware) veterans, can barely be concealed. Something seems amiss.
For a nation reeling under an unprecedented ‘two-front’ security challenge, it has been over six months that the all-important post of the CDS remains unoccupied.
Amended service rules make all serving and recently retired three-star officers under the age of 62 years eligible for the post of CDS. It perpetuates the downgrading of the post, which was announced with much pomp, purpose and posturing.
Political interest has clearly seeped into restricted ‘cantonments’. But military can't be a tool for politics. The Armed Forces can not afford further afflictions and distractions.
How Politics Is Appropriating the Institution
A dangerously increasing number of people from the ‘uniformed’ fraternity are now openly partisan and offer invaluable ‘covering fire’ to the dispensations as they go about doing what they deem expedient. The proverbial ‘last resort’ of the nation is increasingly becoming the ‘first resort’ for doing political bidding and optic management for unhinged politics. The Indian ‘soldier’, who has ironically become a stock figure in pop-political culture of our hyper-nationalistic times, is still invoked for only transactional utility. True to the times that be, any question or query pertaining to the security realm is dismissed as partisan, ‘politically motivated’, and, worse, even ‘anti-national’!
Much like Donald Trump’s misplaced idea of ‘My Generals’, India is seeing a deliberate usurpation of the Indian Armed Forces to belong to a specific ideological/partisan class. This appropriation of the institution for partisan concerns restricts discussions and questions over important concerns. Such an environment and ecosystem ensure that even the constitutionally apolitical and necessarily restrained institution of the Armed Forces is susceptible to thundering announcements, headline management, and a reality that is a lot less supported than claimed.
When the 'Masterstroke' CDS Post Was Announced
It was from the most symbolic ramparts of the Red Fort in 2019 that the announcement of the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) was made by none other than the Prime Minister himself, on Independence Day. It was certainly an idea whose time had long come, but the dilly-dallying of the politicos and the bureaucracy had long caused its delay. Would this announcement also go the ‘OROP’ way (short-sold from the initial commitment), or would the empowered 5-Star generalship finally fructify?
Those who were sceptic of the government’s intentions were immediately pooh-poohed, and past dispensations were dutifully excoriated for the inexplicable delay; all the right noises about strategic reforms and empowerment of the Armed Forces were made.
The Prime Minister announced, “Experts of this field for long have been demanding this … Once this post is created, it will provide an effective leadership at the topmost level of the three forces. This was absolutely true, the announcement was hailed, and the words resonated across. For an institution that prides itself in plain-speak and delivering exactly as committed, it waited with bated breath for the CDS to assume charge.
Importantly, this announcement followed significant decisions such as demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax (GST). It was hoped that lessons had been learnt, that it would be ensured that there’s no slip between the cup and the lip. Also, the CDS announcement, ominously, came before the Indo-Sino standoff in the summer of 2020. The usual vocabulary of ‘game-changer’, ‘masterstroke’, ‘transformation’, etc, was freely used.
A Cryptic PIB Statement
On 24 December 2019, a cryptic PIB statement about Cabinet approval read inter alia, “…approved to create the post of Chief of Defence Staff in the rank of a four-star General with salary and perquisites equivalent to a Service Chief. The Chief of Defence Staff will also head the Department of Military Affairs (DMA), to be created with the Ministry of Defence and function as its Secretary.” A first amongst equals, it was to be.
Obviously, to question the intent behind the obvious dilution was tantamount to being ‘partisan’, and it would open the floodgates for popular trolling. Hence, a more accommodative, ‘wait-and-watch’ approach was suggested.
While the final verdict on the actual transformation effected by the first CDS was still out there, tragedy struck the institution and the nation when the helicopter flying the first CDS crashed on 8 December 2021.
The Downgrading of a Critical Post
Today, for a nation reeling under an unprecedented ‘two-front’ security challenge, it has been over six months that the all-important post of the CDS remains unoccupied. Persisting murmurs about ‘Deep Choice’ aside, there is a new announcement for amended service rules that make all serving and recently retired three-star officers under the age of 62 years eligible for the post of CDS. The announcement suggests a curious implication of all those that it potentially allows (and, more importantly, disallows) to qualify for the post.
Unsubstantiated reports on a possible split in the responsibilities of the Secretary, DMA, from that of the CDS (as framed just a couple of years earlier), are also adding to the uncertainty. If true, this would further perpetuate the downgrading of the post, which was announced with much pomp, purpose and posturing.
The Forces Can't Afford Distractions
The hankering for the post or the subsequent domino effect in the chain of command that it could set off would also not augur well for an institution that must maintain a certain ‘distance’ from the politicos. Too many gaffes, mealy-mouthed obfuscations and unwarranted actions with political overtones have been coming from institutional ranks of significance. The Armed Forces can not afford further afflictions and distractions.
The CDS saga seems to be replicating the missteps of governance that preceded the same. To suggest that it was no better (or even worse) under the earlier dispensation may well be true, but that cannot be the benchmark.
Political interest has clearly seeped into restricted ‘cantonments’ (far exceeding their functional competence) and is attempting to micro-manage a bigger power play. And this is worrisome, for, the military cannot become a tool for politics.
The deafening silence on the CDS appointment, only to be punctured occasionally with even more suspicious amendments to the service protocols, can sure qualify as ‘masterstrokes’ in the political arena. But in the disciplined world of the ‘uniformed’ and against the most uncompromisable element of service rules, ie, apolitical anchorage, such ‘masterstrokes’ are a recipe for even more dilutions and chaos.
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is a former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)