General Mukund Naravane, the new chief of the Indian Army, had his first brush with the Indian media soon after taking charge. Given the benchmark for making public statements with political undertones set by his predecessor General Bipin Rawat, who is now India’s Chief of Defence Staff, the media tried its best to provoke the new Army chief.
The media by design, default or fear, does not question the Narendra Modi government or the bureaucracy with respect to national security. In this environment, the three military chiefs and now the CDS become “the whipping boys” on all matters of national security when they are only responsible for the military aspects.
My suggestion to the CDS and the three chiefs of the Indian armed forces is that in the face of media provocation, just go back to cryptic military language. This will avoid situations such as the one that General Naravane landed himself in after his very first media interview as the 28th Chief of Army Staff.
Replying to a question, Gen Naravane said, “If Pakistan does not stop its policy of state-sponsored terrorism, we reserve the right to preemptively strike at the sources of terror threat and this intent has adequately been demonstrated in our response during surgical strikes and Balakot operation.” This statement provoked an immediate response from Pakistan. Its Foreign Office called the statement irresponsible, reiterating the concerns of Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and Prime Minister Imran Khan that such commentary appeared designed to set the stage for a “false flag operation”.
While Pakistan’s reaction was predictable, a critical analysis of Gen Naravane’s remarks does indicate a transgression into the political domain and state policy, which is best avoided by the Indian military. Is it right, then, to say that India has an apolitical armed force led by a politicised hierarchy? And has the new Army chief also succumbed to the temptation?
My answer to the first question is that, as yet, it is still only a small number of unethical senior officers who identify with the political and ideological views of the party in power to promote self-interest. The answer to the second question is an emphatic “no”. General Naravane certainly does not fall in this category. And I say this based on his immediate ‘course correction’ after what was a minor error in judgement and the sterling reputation that he enjoys among all ranks of the Army and with veterans, including the author, alongside whom he has served.
All his subsequent public statements were militarily correct to a fault. The basic theme he dwelt on was that the Indian Army was prepared for all defensive and offensive missions and contingencies. When ordered to do so – the phrase which emphasises that wars/conflict are waged based on political decision – it will launch operations across the borders as per various options available. In the prevailing political environment, this is the best approach that the CDS and the three service chiefs must follow.
National security is for govt
In another interaction with the media, Army chief Naravane rightly highlighted the need to focus more on the northern front. “We have been giving attention to our western front in the past. The northern front now also requires an equal amount of attention. In that context, we are now going in for capability development and enhancement of our capacities even in our northern borders, which includes the northeastern part of our country.”
The Army chief’s principal task is capability development. While the statement was meant to publicly convey the preparedness of the Army for all missions, the reality is that the asymmetry vis-a-vis China is frightening and we do not have the edge to force compellence on Pakistan – more so when the defence budget is shrinking in real terms. The challenge for the CDS and the service chiefs is to restructure/reorganise the armed forces and modernise them in the budget available.
The question that goes abegging is why are all questions with respect to national security being directed towards the three chiefs (who will now have the CDS giving them company)? National Security Strategy rests squarely with the central government. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh rarely talk about national security in or out of Parliament. There are two reasons for this. The first is relative lack of knowledge; and the second is that, as yet, we do not have a formal National Security Strategy. The Defence Planning Committee, headed by the NSA, has been preparing one since April 2018. If at all the Prime Minister or the Defence Minister speak on the subject, it is in political and earthy language aimed at the domestic audience – “munh tod jawab denge”, “aaj tak aisa nahin hua”, and “ghar mein ghus ke maara hai”, etc.
Even more inexplicable is the silence of the defence secretary, who is “responsible for the defence of India and the armed forces”, as per Government of India (Allocation of Business) Rules, 1961, but has never made a public statement with respect to national security. Incidentally, the amendment made to these rules on 30 December after the appointment of CDS Rawat enhances his charter to include the making of “defence policy”. The NSA and the Foreign Secretary do no better in this regard.
Deflect, be cryptic
The service chiefs are relatively inexperienced in handling India’s politicians and the media. Also, inadvertently, they assume the responsibility to answer questions related to government policies. Our politicians and bureaucrats revel in this state of affairs. Depending on the political need, they either exploit the statements of the chiefs to indirectly identify the armed forces with themselves, or rarely, admonish them for their gaffes.
My advice to the CDS and the service chiefs is to restrict their public statements to the military domain and deflect the political and macro national security issues towards the central government. On military matters as well, use cryptic language. A case in point is how the US military handled the media after Iran’s missile strikes on its bases in Iraq. The military gave a cryptic factual statement and President Donald Trump made the policy statement. And last but not the least, the service chiefs should give a rap on the knuckles of unethical senior officers who make public statements with political undertones to promote self-interests.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.