Who Will Be India’s First CDS?

Considerable commotion is going on since Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on August 15 that India will have a CDS to head the Army, Navy and Air Force for furthering military coordination. The announcement ended the long awaited decision with no less than 68 countries in the world already having a CDS. Requisite military integration cannot be achieved without CDS, yet CDS didn’t come about till now more because of bureaucratic stonewalling rather than fear of military coup. Interestingly, India came close to getting a CDS on multiple occasions in the past.

The Group of Ministers after the 1999 Kargil Conflict had recommended appointing a CDS. However, according to an irrefutable source, PM Indira Gandhi was to announce the CDS on November 30, 1984; General AS Vaidya was to be CDS but Indira Gandhi was assassinated before the announcement could be made. Next, PM AB Vajpayee had once resolved before leaving office to announce the CDS next day. However, his Principal Secretary claims that he received a call from the Air Chief that CDS was not acceptable to him. The Principal Secretary then spoke to Vajpayee, who shelved the announcement.

In September 2005, Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee told a tri-service audience at HQ IDS, that government had decided whom to appoint CDS but there was no political consensus. He then added that many things get approved without political consensus. Asked for views by Muklherjee, the Chairman COSC & Naval Chief, Army Chief and Officiating Air Chief unanimously replied not only CDS was necessary, he must have full operational powers over the military in order to make him effective. Next occasion was Defence Minister Parrikar stating in December 2015 that CDS could be reality soon. Earlier same month, PM Modi, chairing the Combined Commanders Conference, had called for promoting military jointness; a call he repeated on July 27, 2019, during Kargil Diwas celebrations.

Appointing CDS had to be a political decision, which is now taken. Speculation is rife who will be the first CDS and how effective will he be? The government appointed ‘Implementation Committee’ for CDS is to submit its recommendations by November. Gen Bipin Rawat, COAS is being projected as front-runner. He will be senior-most Service Chief after the Implementation Committee submits its report. He is reportedly close to the NSA, has kept politicians and bureaucrats more than happy, often placing them above own soldiers, particularly ingratiating himself with Nirmala Sitharaman in her avatars as Defence Minister and now FM. Attacking IT exemption authorized since 1922 to disabled military personnel who continued serving, and barring serving personnel from communicating with veterans are two examples, among scores of them. The lockdown in J&K is in his favour with his Pakistani counterpart given 3-years extension under pretext regional situation.

ACM BS Dhanoa, CAS is also being speculated as the CDS, particularly because of the Balakot air strikes that broke Pakistan’s nuclear bluff. As has become the norm among Service Chiefs in recent years, he has been making political statements to appease the hierarchy, even publicly justifying pricing of the Rafale fighters though price is the forte of MoD, not chiefs. Some write-ups urge to stop projecting IAF as villain. Others point out IAF has already lost 11 aircraft in 2019. Dhanoa has stated people don’t even use cars as old as MiG aircraft, This is true but then of the 11 aircraft lost in 2019, only four are MiGs. He is accompanying Defence Minister Rajnath Singh to France next month. Some feel on their return, Dhanoa may be announced CDS since government considers air strikes remedy for Pakistani terrorism (a’ la Balakot) and India may buy another 36 Rafale.

There is also speculation that CDS maybe from Navy because of increased focus on sea. Past precedence also exists of recalling a retired Lieutenant General to raise a Strike Corps. Media reports few years back, quoting government sources, had said CDS chosen need not be senior to Service Chiefs. Tenure of the CDS and his age when assuming charge may also be considered albeit government can make exceptions. Dhanoa and Rawat become 62 years of age in September and December respectively. If appointed CDS, would they serve till age of 65? Will the Implementation Committee headed by NSA with Cabinet Secretary, Defence Secretary, Secretary Expenditure and COSC as members, be advantage Rawat?. But going by PM Modi’s penchant for surprises, he may well pick up the CDS from amongst the Army Commanders / Equivalents.

The IAS will undoubtedly work towards making the CDS toothless. Concurrent to Modi’s August 15 announcement, the IAS Association went public in saying IAS will not work under the military and any dilution of powers of defence secretary will be unacceptable. Recall former President Pranab Mukherjee stating that the biggest hindrance to India’s progress is its bureaucracy. For that matter, Ajay Kumar, Defence Secretary designate, when Joint Secretary IT, never countered Virat Bhatia heading AT&T working towards undermining India’s position for governing the internet. On the contrary, Ajay accepted everything Bhatia told him just because AT&T was developing NSA’s surveillance system.

India needs a CDS with full operational powers over the military in order to be effective. It is not merely about merging MoD with HQ IDS, undertaking strategic defence review and establishing theater commands, but India needs holistic revolution in military affairs. Such changes can only be driven by the top political leadership. The Goldwater Nichols Act brought revolutionary changes in the US Military, In China, the change was ushered by Jiang Zemin with implementation overseen by the CMC and CGS PLA. President Xi Jinping today is also C-in-C of PLA. Prime Minister Narendra Modi must take on this mantle, leaving ceremonials to the President as Supreme Commander. The CDS being principal military adviser and directly under Defence Minister, must also have direct access to the Prime Minister.

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 2100 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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