On 1 January, India’s first Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat said that the armed forces stay far away from politics. “We stay away, we stay far away from politics. We work on the directives of the government in power,” he said while answering a question.
The fact that someone had to ask the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) a question on allegations that the armed forces were being politicised is an indication of a perception deficit in place.
While we know that the armed force is apolitical, it has now become important for it to be seen and heard as one too. And this is exactly what the new Chief of Army Staff Gen Manoj Mukund Naravane has to ensure.
There is no doubt that Gen Rawat has been one of the most active Army chiefs in the recent past. He has also been one of the most vocal in a very long time and has not shied away from speaking his mind.
Rawat has initiated a lot of reforms in the Army that will change how the 13 lakh-strong force functions in the coming years. He has taken some hard decisions that have brought down his own stock in the military, especially among veterans, while earning the admiration of a much less number, including me.
While one can debate on whether the reforms were actually good or not, there is no doubt that allegations of politicisation of the Army did rise during Gen Rawat’s tenure.
I will put in a disclaimer here: Having professionally known Gen Rawat from close quarters since his Vice Chief days, I will give him the benefit of doubt because I know that he speaks freely. He has strong positions on issues and does what he feels is right. There has never been an occasion when he did not answer a question by me or cleared my doubts.
Also, in most cases, Gen Rawat was only responding to questions posed to him, but his comments often snowballed into controversies.
However, his opinion on the student protests, hitting out at Pakistan during election time, use of Army to build bridges over the Yamuna for Ravi Shankar’s private event or to build a foot-over bridge in Mumbai among others, have come under criticism.
So, it is upon new Chief Naravane to ensure that while he carries forward his own legacy and that of Gen Rawat, he should not allow critics any room to question the Army’s intent.
Gen Naravane has hit the ground running from day one itself with his views on various defence-related issues.
Just like his predecessor, Gen Naravane also prefers to bat on a straight wicket. However, unlike Gen Rawat, he speaks much less but shoots a straight arrow to the point.
First to speak on China
Known as the “quintessential Army man”, Gen Naravane rightly said India needs to pay more attention to its border with China and asserted that the armed force is capable of dealing with any security challenge.
While Pakistan gets the immediate attention in the media and the spotlight, fact is that China is a much more serious challenge to us.
Incidentally, Gen Naravane was the first officer to speak out on the China issue after the 2017 Doklam standoff as the Eastern Army Commander just before taking over as the Vice Chief.
Terming China a bully, he had said on 27 August, “We are no longer the Army of 1962. If China says don’t forget history, we also have to tell them the same thing”.
“They (China) thought that they would get away by being a regional bully…but we stood up to the bully,” he had said much to the surprise of many in New Delhi.
It was interesting to see the Army reaching out to journalists at that time to underplay the remarks a bit, lest China takes major offence, unlike earlier when they would reach out for a firefight over some development or remarks by the Army chief, which put them in an awkward position.
Ties with veterans
Another important fracture that new Army chief Gen Naravane will have to mend is the frail relations with the veterans. While Gen Rawat did take the right stand on some issues, in hindsight, he could have handled them in a slightly less combative manner while also being articulate.
The lack of proper communication was visible when the Army Headquarters started discussing a code of conduct for veterans and when steps were being taken to streamline disability pension.
Usually, only after a controversy would break out over his comments and actions, Gen Rawat or his people would explain his stand and logic, which however problematic, would work for the betterment of the force in future.
This is also something that the new Army chief will have to watch out for as he sets about with his agenda for his team.