The Modi government appointed Lt Gen Anil Chauhan (Retired)as the next Chief of Defence Staff(CDS) on Wednesday, 28 September, thereby filling a critical post in the highest echelons of the national security lattice that has remained vacant since the tragic death of the first incumbent, General Bipin Rawat in an ill-fated helicopter crash in December last year.
The fact that the government took almost 10 months to arrive at this decision is reflective, presumably, of the internal deliberations that may have taken place to identify the new incumbent, who will now inherit many transformative challenges in re-wiring the Indian military and enhancing its combined efficacy as India’s second CDS.
New CDS Has Some Big Shoes To Fill
While wishing Gen. Chauhan the very best in his tenure as the Principal ‘fauji sherpa’ in advising the government and concurrently, steering the military towards greater inter-service synergy, some preliminary observations may help contextualise the significance of this appointment with the benefit of what has transpired on the Rawat watch.
The fact that the government tweaked the existing rules to appoint a retired three-star officer as Chauhan was the eastern army commander as a Lt. General prior to his superannuation in end of May 2021, is unprecedented.
While senior billets in the civilian bureaucracy have been filled in this manner in the past, this is the first time that a senior military officer in India has been ‘recommissioned’ as it were and also with a promotion to the next rank of a four-star general. This is uncharted water apropos India’s higher defence management.
The outcome of this radical departure in existing procedures and norms in an inherently hierarchical eco-system, by way of the impact on institutional efficacy and how this will manifest itself will be evident in a few years time.
What Lies Ahead Of General Chauhan?
The challenges for Gen Chauhan are multi-layered and have a domestic, regional and global context. At the domestic level, the Indian military is undergoing a major structural transformation that had been initiated by the first CDS including both the creation of theatre commands (to progressively replace the existing eighteen disparate individual service commands), the new recruitment policy of personnel below officer rank under the freshly-minted 'Agnipath' scheme, and an inventory indigenisation drive when the domestic competence level remains unproven.
The Covid experience at the national level and its deleterious impact on the economy and human security indicators remain daunting. This exigency has led to a predictable belt-tightening and fiscal austerity for the near future.
Hence, defence budgets will remain depressed and this brings into focus the immediate military challenge – the Galwan setback of mid 2020 – and the festering tension with China across the Line Of Actual Control(LAC).
LAC, Ukraine Issue on India’s Key Military Agenda
At the regional and global level, the war in Ukraine and the Russian determination to take recourse to nuclear weapons has added to the Indian predicament that includes the dependency factor on Moscow for military inventory and the long term non-linear impact on food security, both regionally and globally.
Regionally, the turbulence in Afghanistan and developments in Pakistan will call for much higher levels of alertness wherein the external determinant of state-sponsored terror and radical Islamic extremism can adversely influence the internal security fabric.
As the CDS, Gen Chauhan will be wearing three hats -- that of the permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee(COSC), the single-point military adviser to the defence minister, and the Secretary of the Department of Military Affairs(DMA).
Donning Too Many Hats
It is instructive that the government press release has emphasised this role/hat of the CDS as a Secretary and this merits comment based on Bipin Rawat's experience.
General Rawat who assumed office in January 2020 was the first incumbent at four star rank who was also tasked to function as a 'Secretary-level official' in the Ministry of Defence. The anomalous equivalence issue came into focus for the Defence Secretary is at a rank and pay grade below that of the four star service chief and as the CDS – the incumbent is of four star rank and the first among equals with the other three Chiefs, when he functions as the permanent Chairman of the COSC.
While General Rawat bravely soldiered on as a military chief, adviser to the Raksha Mantri (RM) and top bureaucrat of the DMA, in hindsight it was evident that this was a case of overload of a high order.
From the limited anecdotal evidence based on private conversations that some interlocutors have had with the late Gen Rawat and those who served in that loop, it was opined that divesting the CDS of the secretary role would be desirable.
The existing Vice CDS could be appointed as the Secretary DMA and this policy tweak would allow the new CDS to address the far more complex challenge of effecting higher levels of inter-service synergy while managing with low budgetary allocations and also ensuring that the new recruitment policy and atmanirbharta drive will not adversely impact the operational profile of the military in the medium term.
The work in progress initiated by his predecessor will present a very complex challenge for Gen Chauhan. Theatre commands have been mooted in a resolute manner but with dwindling air assets, it is not clear how the new structure will enhance overall inter-service synergy. Is there a case to pause and do a review of objectives, assets and means ?
Will Rawat’s Successor Live Up to the Critical Role?
The last issue is a sensitive one-- that of the political orientation of the new CDS. The fact that he has been handpicked by the Modi team would suggest an acceptability index akin to the Rawat selection.
This choice is part of the civil-military equation in a democracy and unexceptionable, but where the top military is drawn into the political domain-- such a drift is both avoidable and undesirable.
The Rawat experience has valuable cues for his successor. General Chauhan would also be aware of how his own remarks while in uniform, on issues of domestic governance (CAA et al) had been received within the fauji community. As a student of India’s rich but opaque civil-military relations, one would take the liberty of suggesting to the new CDS – "When in doubt, refer to the Tappy Raina pocket book."
Fair winds and following seas, General Chauhan.
(Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, Director, Society for Policy Studies, has the rare distinction of having headed three think tanks. He was previously Director at the National Maritime Foundation (2009-11) and the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (2004-05). He tweets @theUdayB. 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.)