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Appointment of CDS needs sharper focus The Statesman 14 Jun 2022
Six months post the demise of India’s first CDS (Chief of Defence Staff), General Bipin Rawat, in a tragic helicopter crash, the government tweaked rules for appointing his reliever. As per the notification, any serving or retired Lt General or equivalent in the other two services, apart from serving or retired chiefs, is eligible for the appointment. He must be below 62 at the time of being appointed. Logically, this removes all retired chiefs, as they generally superannuate at 62. Bipin was possibly an exception, who retired, on conclusion of his tenure of three years, three months short of 62.
Officially, there is no mention of whether the next CDS should have headed his own service or tri-service command. Since Lt Generals superannuate at 60, hence all who have retired during the past two years are eligible, alongside those serving, a fairly large pool for the government to select. There being no other criteria, the government can push its personal choice.
As early as 16th Dec last year, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had announced that the process to appoint the next CDS had commenced. Press reports mentioned that eligible names had been forwarded to the appointments committee. Rajnath continued making announcements on the subject at regular intervals, however nothing moved. This led to speculations, few healthy, largely unhealthy. It would have been ideal had the government nominated one of the service chiefs as the CDS as early as possible post the untimely demise of General Rawat. It may have upset the chain for that service, but then, that would have been acceptable, rather than amending norms.
The appointments committee, since 2016, comprises of just the PM and the Home Minister. If they have been unable to decide a CDS for six months, it speaks volumes of where government priorities lie. It is also possible that the government found none of the recently retired service chiefs suitable for the appointment or they turned it down for personal or professional reasons. Their unsuitability is suspect as they have been selected by the same dispensation and are well aware of the responsibilities and functioning of the CDS. If they turned down the government’s offer, it implies that there are major flaws in the design of the appointment of the CDS.
There are also inputs that the government is reassessing whether the CDS should simultaneously be the Secretary, Department of Military Affairs (DMA), an appointment lower in status or should this be assigned to the head of HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS). This re-thinking conveys that the government has either second thoughts on the role and tasks of the CDS or discovered that its initial earmarking of responsibilities were flawed. It is unknown whether this re-calibration in assessment has flowed from experience or objections from a host of veterans and strategic thinkers who have adversely commented on the CDS functioning as Secretary DMA.
The government, in its tasking of the CDS, has nominated him to be the first amongst equals, where he and the service chiefs are concerned, which means that he would permanently head the Chiefs of Staff Committee. Further, he must be senior to them to enable pushing the agenda of jointness, integrated planning and creation of theatre commands. In a tri-service establishment, seniority of officers of similar rank is determined from date of assumption of rank and not of service or commission. Thus seniority amongst four stars (service chiefs and CDS) is determined based on the date they assumed their appointment.
Hence the CDS will be subordinate to current service chiefs unless a serving chief, preferably senior-most is nominated. The government may be compelled to issue another corrigendum to its initial order to correct this anomaly. Simultaneously, the nominated CDS must believe that the Indian armed forces need to undergo transformation. It is also possible that the government has already decided who would be the next CDS and is now tweaking rules to push his appointment.
This is not the first time that the government has changed rules to favour individuals in the armed forces. In Dec 2017, it reduced the tenure of army commanders to 18 months from 24. The first beneficiary of this reduction was Lt Gen Ranbir Singh, who, as Director General Military Operations, was the face of the army, post the first surgical strikes carried out against Pak launch pads in Sept 2016, in retaliation to the Uri terrorist attack. He went on to command the Northern Command and subsequently was also a contender for the post of COAS, when General Bipin Rawat retired in Dec 2019.
The passing of the amendment possibly also implies that the appointment of CDS may not be based on merit but political considerations. For an apolitical force such a step conveys a negative message and places the appointee at a disadvantage from the outset. There were widespread objections when General Bipin Rawat was appointed chief superseding two seniors. In the current scenario, it could be even more damaging.
Taking six months to appoint a replacement, while pushing through a disliked as also disadvantageous Tour of Duty (TOD) and manpower reduction policy, raises doubts. Was the government’s intention to push through schemes, which the forces had objected to, a greater priority than appointing a CDS? Added to this is a view that the government was pushing TOD onto a system of separated services avoiding a unified response under a CDS, which would have added to difficulties. Now that the schemes are almost approved, the appointment of the CDS is around the corner.
It is known that justifications for delay or avoiding selecting serving chiefs (past and present) may never become public. The silence of the government would only enhance speculation which could damage the image of the forces and the appointee. Safeguarding the ethos, image and apolitical nature of the forces is the responsibility of the government. The question is whether the government is fulfilling it or as is their norm, maintaining silence and ignoring criticism. Simultaneously, it must take wider views on its hairbrained scheme of TOD, prior to insisting on its implementation.