Undermining CDS – just ‘carrot’ one Chief

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Two recent articles in the media have evoked considerable public debate.

First one titled ‘Modi government is in office, but not in power’ is by Minhaz Merchant. Besides many issues, it also talks of: PM Modi down trap of his own making by not promoting technocratic talent into his cabinet but relying on bureaucrats who behind his back have subverted much of his agenda; Modi being in permanent campaigning mode, governance outsourced to bureaucrats who can’t wait for the return of the Congress which happily abets their graft; IT department, ED, DRI and CBI, instead of taking UPA-era corruption cases to their logical conclusion, engage in petty harassment of honest taxpayers; armed forces, neglected for a decade by UPA, slow to receive modern equipment even under NDA, and; bureaucracy in MoD and MoF not tamed.

The second article titled ‘Chief of Defence Staff: To Be Or Not to Be’ by Bharat Karnad lauds Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman righting a wrong in restoring military some equity and sense of pride – striking down the October 2016 MoD note downgrading two-star rank military officers with repercussions down the line during tenure of Manohar Parrikar, Sitharaman also suggesting the MoD note was issued when Parrikar was not paying attention.

Karnad highlights the following: Parrikar, soon after assuming office, assured decision would be made soon on CDS but nothing happened thereafter; the Shekatkar Committee endorsed the need for a CDS but appointment of a four-star officer as CDS without changing the extant system implying no change aside from changing the nomenclature of HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) to CDS – enabling babus of MoD continue to rule the roost; since no Service Chief would surrender to power of the CDS, latter despite being four-star will remain junior-most sans any power; Shekatkar Committee didn’t articulate CDS recommendation in any way different from the Naresh Chandra Committee that recommended a figurehead Permanent Chairman of Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC); deposing before the Committee on Higher Defence Organization chaired by Rajiv Gandhi’s Defence Minister, (now late) KC Pant, (with also late Air Cmde Jasjit Singh as Member-Secretary) set up during Vajpayee’s time (in the very early 2000s), Karnan pleaded for imposition of the CDS on the military along the lines of original “unification” of the US armed services (with later Goldwater-Nichols Act “plugging the loopholes”) imposed by the strong willed President Harry S Truman; Karnad had warned that if CDS was not imposed without regard to individual service views and sentiments, and the services chiefs were approached for their opinions, reform would sink without trace, specifically mentioning IAF – IAF is convinced that with Army in the fray it will always lose out to the army candidate and will have the mortification of a landlubber deciding its fate; Modi needs to green signal the CDS system to replace the mess that the country has in the present structure of the three Services and their fraught relationship with MoD.

The Kargil Review Committee (KRC) headed by late K Subramanyam had recommended early establishment of the CDS. This was strongly endorsed by the Group of Ministers (GoP) headed by Deputy PM and Home Minister LK Advani under NDA I. However, the supremacy of the bureaucracy prevailed. Even HQ IDS established under KRC recommendations was not permitted to merge with the MoD, as was intended despite strong push by Defence Minister George Fernandes. Fernades was derailed through the ‘Coffin Gate’ knowing he would step down, even though he was absolved of all charges by the law years later. What can be expected from NDA II doesn’t promote much hope going by Minhaz Merchant that governance has been outsourced to bureaucrats. Years after the KRC report, the UPA II appointed the Naresh Chandra Committee came up with a new term Permanent Chairman of COSC. NDA II instead of examining a recent military study deliberately appointed the Shekatkar Committee that would propose a figurehead CDS, as mentioned by Bharat Karnad above. The mention of no service consensus is very well played out by bureaucrats, former NSAs and Defence Secretary’s included.

If dissent between Service Chiefs is reported periodically with regard to CDS, it is orchestrated by the MoD bureaucracy or the political hierarchy to stymie appointing the CDS. For example, one Service Chief who at the 2005 meeting above was vehement that “CDS should be appointed with full operational powers without further delay”, stated just before retiring that we should not appointment CDS till we resolve our insurgency problems – as if the two are related. Predictably, his eating the carrot earned him out of turn constitutional appointment after relinquishing office of the Service Chief. That is how the game continues to be played, evident from the purely political statement being given by some Service Chiefs in recent times. In 2015, Rao Inderjit Singh, then MoS (Defence) stated publicly that the three Services have agreed to the requirement of the CDS but then that was never wanting. As mentioned above, there was complete consensus in 2005, as narrated above.

One wonders if Defence Minister Sitharaman is privy to the bureaucratic skullduggery, apparent from the CCS note that sanctioned HQ IDS, saying “as and when the CDS is established, he will have equal voting rights as the Service Chiefs, and where two Service Chiefs don’t agree, MoD will arbitrate”. If CDS is to be a “single point advisor” where is the question of Service Chiefs not agreeing? Can the Defence Minister visualize a system where two Army Commanders / equivalents disagree with a Service Chief, want MoD bureaucrats to arbitrate? Significantly, Naresh Chandra was specifically briefed by the then NSA, to dump CDS and introduce this hitherto unheard term of Permanent Chairman COSC. The cat was out of the bag with Manoj Joshi, himself member of the Naresh Chandra Committee, disclosed MoD did not want CDS because they thought that the Defence Secretary and his IAS colleagues would be “somehow diminished”. So that is the consideration, defence of India be damned !

The CDS is required not only as a single point advisor but to synergize the military, which is not-existent today notwithstanding proclamations of everything hunky dory. India is the only country with an MoD sans military professionals, manned by bureaucrats ruling the roost, Resultantly, we lack cohesive national security strategy, national security objectives remain undefined, higher defence organizations aren’t streamlined, little synergy within the military, and the military-industrial complex remains in poor state. Bharat Karnad mentioned President Truman. Similarly in UK the debate over CDS raged for 18 years till Prime Minister Harold Macmilan forced the CDS down the throat of the military in 1959. India needed the CDS after Kargil. The mounting China-Pakistan threats indicate further delays will adversely affect national security. The decision rests with PM Narendra Modi to approve the appointment of CDS, leaving its implementation to Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. The assumption that there will be no conflict is an ostrich approach that will cost us dearly. The question is can PM Modi take the gauntlet like Truman and Macmilan?

Prakash Katoch is third generation army officer hailing from Himachal Pradesh. He is former Lieutenant General from Special Forces and post retirement has published over 1300 articles on international affairs, geopolitics, military, security, technical and topical issues besides authoring two books. He is active in seminars at both national and international levels.

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