With so much having been written about the creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) for the armed forces; a strong recommendation for it by late K Subrahmanyam in his Kargil War review; and the return to power at the centre of the Bharatiya Janta Party presage the possibility that the CDS will become a reality sooner or later.
The confluence of events both internal and external thus appears to be conducive to the creation of the post which is touted to be a “single point source” for military advice to the government. The requirement for this appointment arises from the fact that modern war cannot be fought by any Service on its own and has to be a multi-service operation.
The growth of the concept of CDS comes in tandem to the creation of the Integrated Defence Staff which came into being in 2001 and was empowered to oversee the operations of the lone Tri-Service Command in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Its responsibility was to act as “a point organization for integration of policy, doctrine, war fighting and procurement by employing best management practices”. That it could not be replicated in the defence of the mainland where all the wars (on the periphery and within) have been fought in the 13 years of its existence speaks volumes about its usefulness.
STRATEGIC AFFAIRS in its last issue had given an example of the management practices followed by the Integrated Defence Staff in the acquisition of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. It had pointed out that the “CAG had reason to comment adversely on the purchase of UAVs by the Indian Air Force and the Indian Navy without including the Army in the process.”
How does this happen in an institution that has deliberately been entwined from a three-ply existence. Was it because the Integrated Defence Staff was housed in two disparate locations-in South Block and Kashmir House-that there was no occasion for the three to meet? Will the NDA government take action on the CAG’s comments?
The Government needs to re-examine all the premises on which the decision to shift to the CDS system are being taken. One of the premises is that Jawaharlal Nehru, apart from all the mistakes he made in the run up to the Chinese invasion of 1962, was afflicted by a deep suspicion of Praetorian tendencies among the military class as a whole. It is recorded history that the Indian Army did not seek to overthrow the government of the day as was happening in India’s neighbourhood and around the world. But there are other ways of embarrassing the government and taking revenge for perceived slights is part of the saga of the 1962 defeat at the hands of the Chinese.
Former Vice Chief of Army Staff Lt Gen S K Sinha who resigned after he was superseded in the appointment of the Chief of Staff had said that, “it is worthwhile to examine the arguments used by many, for not having Chief of Defence Staff in India. Before doing so it is necessary to take note of the considerations that have been militating against the introduction of the appointment. First, is the political leadership’s fear of the man on horse back. It is apprehended that the Defence Services will become too powerful and subvert civilian control over the military, a military coup will occur. Second, the opposition of the civilian bureaucracy to any arrangement in which their dominance and stranglehold over the higher defence set up is diminished. Third is the feeling among smaller services, particularly the Air Force, of Army dominance in defence policy formulation. Some fear that a CDS may lead to a situation like the one that prevailed before 1947, when the Army was the dominant Service. Fourth, the inhibitions of serving Service chiefs that their position would get undermined if the CDS were to be appointed. In a light hearted vein, it is often said that serving Service chiefs are not enthusiastic about having a CDS but as their retirement approaches, they get converted to the idea of this appointment.”
In the same vein, an anecdote that was in circulation about a decade ago can be retold. A Service Chief on the verge of retirement made known his preference for the CDS. Expecting that he would be the appropriate choice he went about selecting a new bungalow and had it refurnished to CDS standards, so confident was he that he would get the job. The anecdote highlights another aspect of new appointments in the military hierarchy - it adds new jobs.
In civil-military relations it could be said that anything is possible. Where Praetorianism does not raise its ugly head that nation can be said to be blessed and its military kept on a high pedestal as in India. However, in a sea of civilian corruption vestiges of similar tendencies among the military-as evident in the Comptroller and Auditor General’s findings-could have disastrous consequences if it becomes institutionalized in the CDS system.
General Sinha’s allusion to the “man on horseback” is drawn from the book by that name written by political scientist S C Finer who in that tome had suggested, depending on the level of political culture in a nation-state, the military can seek to impose its will by applying pressure or resorting to blackmail and the military plays the puppet-master.
India, it needs to be emphasized, has had a very highly developed political culture as seen in the manner in which it attained its independence from colonial Britain. The more drastic manifestation of a military coup are either “displacement” of one cabinet by another and the military playing out its role by diktat from behind the scenes. The final act in a military coup in a nation with a political culture in disarray is “supplantment”
As far as General Sinha’s reference to civil bureaucracy machinations is concerned it was reported at the time that a government note on May 27, 1952 declared the Armed Forces Headquarters as “attached office” of the Defence Ministry. In one stroke the bureaucracy divested the Armed Forces Headquarters of policy-making roles as the Government manual of office procedures decreed that while Ministry of Defence could make policy, their “attached offices” merely implemented it.
None of the arguments against having a CDS are valid. It is high time India introduce this appointment and also in due course have integrated field commands. This is imperative for efficient, economical and effective functioning of higher defence organization in both peace and war.
The level of Indian political culture can be gauged by the smooth manner in which transfer of power takes place through the ballot box. The National Democratic Alliance government led by the Bharatiya Janta Party was in power when the Subrahmanyam committee recommended the creation of the post of CDS. Now that the BJP has returned to power at the centre it should be expected that it will implement the suggestion made by its own group of ministers.