As India recently appointed its first commander-in-chief -- a single point authority to head all the three defense services -- the powers of the post have been curtailed sufficiently to avoid the possibility of any military take over and to ensure civilian supremacy.
Soon after fighting the war in Kargil region of Jammu and Kashmir in 1999 several panels were formed. They ranged from from the Kargil Review Committee led by noted strategic expert Krishnaswamy Subrahmanyam to the 14-member task force chaired by former Cabinet Secretary Naresh Chandra. All of them identified many fault lines in the Indian security system, including the lack of coordination between the army, the air force and the navy, coupled with a colossal intelligence failure.
One of the suggestions proposed by all the panels, including by a group of ministers led by then Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani, was to carve out a post of chief of defense staff (CDS) -- a five-star general -- to supervise all the three services, to ensure coordination and their integration. The post was meant to provide single-point military advice to the civilian authority, led by the prime minister.
During the British era, India had a single commander-in-chief for all the three services. But soon after independence in 1947, this arrangement was discarded. According to government business rules, separate commanders independent of each other were appointed to each service, the army, the air force, and the navy. The service chiefs were not authorized to issue any orders on behalf of the government. Even in decisions of procurement of arms, they had only recommendatory powers.
Among the various landmark decisions Prime Minister Narendra Modi took in his second tenure, like revocation of autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir, adopting a new citizenship law and paving way for the construction of Ram temple at the site of the demolished Babri Mosque, the appointment of CDS is also seen as a milestone in the country’s history.
But many strategic experts feel that terms of reference for this post falls short of expectations and recommendations of expert panels. Instead of making this post superior to three service chiefs, the CDS has been kept equivalent to them. Instead of adorning five stars, the CDS will continue to have four stars on the badge. In a way, he will be a sort of permanent chairman of the chiefs of staff committee. The post earlier was rotating between the senior-most service chief.
But many others are happy that a military general will be part of the day to day functioning of India’s Defense Ministry, which was largely manned by a civilian bureaucracy. The CDS will have powers equaling to a secretary.
"This is a historic step. From being just attached to offices, the armed forces have entered the central edifice of the government of India, something we have been asking for years," says retired Admiral Arun Prakash, former navy chief and member of the Naresh Chandra Task Force on Defense Reforms.
- Civilian leadership refuse to part powers
When India lost its first full-scale war with China in 1962, various experts at that time had also suggested integrating the three services.
But taking lessons from frequent military interventions that had disrupted civilian rule in nearby Pakistan, Myanmar, Thailand, and other countries, then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru rejected the idea. Successive governments also staunchly protected the civilian control of the military. Not only the civilian political leadership, some sections of Indian bureaucracy including intelligence agencies, police forces, etc. harbored fears that a single-point military commander will destabilize institutional arrangement in India.
In January 2012, when then Army Chief General Vijay Kumar Singh got embroiled with the government on the issue of his date of birth, intelligence agencies had reported an unexpected movement of key military units in the direction of capital New Delhi from various cantonments.
Though later clarification came that it was a usual military drill, to check the ability to make quick deployment during fog, the absence of usual protocols like not taking prior permission from the Defense Ministry and not informing the Air Force, raised suspicion.
The English language newspaper The Indian Express, which reported about the movement stated that given strained political-military relations over the weeks, nothing could be easily dismissed as a routine misdemeanor. The timing of the army chief’s petition seeking extension and the government turning down his recommendations to appoint Lt. Gen. Ashok Kumar Choudhary as director-general of Assam Rifles, a paramilitary force under the army’s control, had sent alarms bells ringing in New Delhi.
The notification that approved the appointment of General Bipin Rawat as India’s first CDS, soon after his retirement from the post of army chief has taken care, not to vest too much authority in the post. “Though the CDS will be a pointsman for the services to contact civilian authority, he will be among one of the secretaries in the Defense Ministry,” said an Indian government official, on the condition of anonymity.
That the CDS will not will not exercise control over any military command is among the many safeguards in place to avoid threats.
“The CDS will be a member of the Defense Acquisition Council, under defense minister, and Defense Planning Committee, chaired by national security advisor. He will also function as the military advisor to the Nuclear Command Authority,” stated the notification cleared by Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS).
The notification clarifies that the CDS will not command any troops on the ground. He will merely administer tri-services organizations like the Strategic Forces Command, the Andaman Nicobar Command, the Defense Cyber Agency and the proposed divisions for space.
- CDS to head military affairs department
The CDS will head the Department of Military Affairs (DMA), a new department carved out in the Defense Ministry. He will report to Defense Minister Rajnath Singh. Indian’s Defense Ministry has already five departments headed by secretaries -- departments of defense, defense procurement, defense research and development organization, ex-servicemen's welfare and defense finance.
The new CDS will work as the sixth secretary while heading the DMA. There is an ambiguity over the role of the defense secretary, who heads the bureaucracy in the ministry. While the rules say, he will continue to remain the primary link to coordinate the activities of all departments, there is no clarity in the relations between the CDS and defense secretaries. According to the Government of India Rules of Business 1961, the defense secretary continues to be responsible for the defense of the country.
By making a four-star and not a five-star general as CDS, Modi has ensured civilian control of defense ministry, said Ajay Shukhla, a military expert.
“He (Modi) has also obviated fear of a military coup by a powerful CDS, while at the same time fulfilling a long-standing demand of appointing a commander in chief. He has also rewarded Gen. Rawat, who has proved a politically useful general for him,” he added.
Strategic expert, Pravin Sawhney believes that in the current format the CDS will in no way help in war preparedness. He said the appointment falls short of recommendations by various panels. “The CDS in the current format is likely to prepare the military to fight the wrong enemy, the wrong war with wrong procurements, training, and mindset. While it might help the Modi government politically, it would make India weak militarily,” he wrote in a defense journal.
The most important task before Gen. Rawat would be constructing integrated military commands in his three years tenure. This is a problem area with deep implications, as no service will like to lose control or share control with others.
The other important task of the CDS will be in the nuclear weapons policy formulation, update, and execution. According to the new scheme of things, the head of Strategic Forces Command will report directly to the CDS, who in turn, will report to the National Security Advisor (NSA).
While the strategic target list update will be the joint responsibility of the NSA and the CDS, after clearance from the Prime Minister, it will remain in the NSA’s custody. Interestingly, the service chiefs will be outside the nuclear weapons’ loop. A former defense secretary told Anadolu Agency that oversight and control of the military's promotions, postings, and foreign assignments and travel will give the CDS enough powers to show his clout.
- Strained civil-military relations
Lately, some signs of strain in the civil-military relationship have manifested in India on issues such as the Siachen glacier, debate over repealing of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) in Kashmir and employment of the army against left-wing extremists in various states.
A few years ago, the Home Ministry and the army had come face to face, when the former had recommended the withdrawal of the AFSPA from Kashmir in phases. There has been also a strain on the issue of promotions, pay, and allowances. The rift came wide open when the pay commissions submitted their recommendations in 2008 and 2016. In 2008, the pay commission almost made state police chiefs equivalent to lieutenant generals. In 2016, they were again up in arms, as they believed that their status has been further lowered compared with the police service in terms of promotions and increments. In the civilian bureaucracy some 80–90% officers become additional secretaries and about 60–70% full secretaries. In the armed forces, however, only about 10% reach the level of lieutenant general, said retired Brig. Deepak Sharma, a commentator on military affairs.
The services are also demanding the same pension for the same ranks for the same length of service irrespective of the date of retirement for 2.6 million ex-servicemen and 60,000 widows.
India’s main opposition Congress party has also raised several questions over the appointment of Gen. Rawat as the CDS. The party spokesperson Manish Tewari said the government has started on a wrong foot on the appointment fraught with serious implications.
"Will the advice of the CDS override the advice of the respective service chiefs. Would the three chiefs report to the defense minister through defense secretary or CDS now," he asked.
He also raised the question of ambiguity left between the positions of CDS and defense secretary.
“What are the implications of the appointment of a CDS on civil-military relations -- the equilibrium of which has been India's singular success since 1947? Are we down a portentous path," he asked.