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Delay in appointing new CDS after Gen. Rawat—Is it about passing the loyalty test?

The delay in announcing the next CDS could also be due to the political leadership undertaking a deep search among all eligible retired and serving officers.

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The sudden and tragic death of India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, along with twelve others in a helicopter crash is a mortal blow by the hand of fate. Ironically, the CDS’ demise also reverberates across the fate of some senior military leaders who might find themselves being either advantaged or disadvantaged in terms of career progression. Depending on whosoever among the eligible is appointed, a chain reaction along the military hierarchy could change individual fates.

Eligibility for the CDS post has been shaped to provide the political leadership to select from a fairly wide range of choices in two domains— serving and retired. The external choice is restricted to former Chiefs not above the age of sixty-five. The internal choice can even be a three-star. So technically, all serving three or four stars are eligible. This is as wide a choice as can be. So, till the announcement of the appointment is made, speculation and conspiracy theories can be expected to run riot.


Also read: With Gen Bipin Rawat gone, here is why it is critical for Modi to select the right CDS


India can’t afford a delay in appointment

It has been almost a week since the post of the CDS went vacant and there is no announcement yet as to who is holding the post in an officiating capacity.

It would appear, by default, that none of the many hats worn by the CDS demands any sense of urgency to be filled by a permanent incumbent. Such an approach ignores the crucial advisory role of a CDS as also the operational role he plays as Permanent Chairperson of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (PC-CoSC). Moreover, considering the trajectory of geopolitical tensions that cloud India’s strategic landscape, the country’s defence modernisation is running very much behind schedule and there is no time to lose. With the CDS being the central figure who could provide direction and set the pace of military reforms, the post should be left vacant only for the unavoidable process time needed for political selection. However, for operational reasons, there can be no justification for not appointing an officiating CDS.

The officiating CDS is critical because of the operational hat that the he wears — of the Permanent Chairman that involves heading the apex body where inter-Service planning and coordination is carried out. If a security crisis occurs, the absence of the PC-CoSC would certainly make coordinated planning difficult, as there is no officially nominated successor though the senior most Chief can be nominated as the first among equals. But such ad hoc moves could prove ineffective substitutes because crises can escalate at speeds unimaginable earlier. Both cyber and space can play the role of accelerators.


Also read: Process to find Gen. Rawat’s successor as CDS begins, these are the likely options before govt


Probable reasons for delay

The delay in announcing the next CDS could be due to the political leadership undertaking a deep search among all eligible retired and serving officers. If the selection is done from among the former Chiefs of the three Services, the eligibility due to age criteria is confined to the two Service Chiefs who have retired shortly: Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria and Admiral K.B. Singh. Bhadauria’s appointment saw bending of rules as he was technically ineligible, since he was retiring on the same day as Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa. If the same principle had been applied, Vice Admiral Chawla, who retired on the same day as Admiral K.B. Singh, should have become the Naval Chief. So, political patronage seemed to have played a weightier role than seniority. If the search is more about finding a CDS whose advice and actions can be expected to conform and converge with the government, Air Chief Marshal Bhadauria could be a front runner.

Admiral K.B. Singh retired only on 30 November and should certainly be in the list. He is not known to be easily swayed by the lure of political patronage. If the government had to choose among the retired Chiefs and pliancy is not an attribute under consideration, he could be a top choice.

If the choice is made from amongst the serving Chiefs, General Naravane, the Army Chief, is ahead of the pack as the other two Chiefs assumed responsibilities only less than three months ago. He should have been, at the least, the natural choice but the fact that he was not officially appointed the officiating CDS, may be indicative of some degree of reluctance by the political leadership. It is difficult to gauge the actual reason for the reluctance.

Though all serving Lieutenant Generals are technically eligible, there would not be much appetite to do a deep selection as it could create unacceptable turbulence in the military hierarchy where seniority cannot easily be ignored.

The selection of the CDS will require the approval of the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC). The Committee was reconstituted in 2016 and is now composed of only two members — the prime minister and the home minister.

In terms of the process followed, the Defence Ministry has to initiate the file and provide a panel of three. It is possible that the MoD is awaiting instructions from the top to configure the process that inclines the choice.

The choice for the panel, from the writer’s viewpoint, is threefold. Panel A could be three serving Chiefs. Panel B could be the Army Chief, Air Chief Marshal Bhadauria and Admiral K.B. Singh. Panel C could be a combination of the two serving Chiefs and one retired Chief. The Army Chief would figure in all and therefore, tells its own story. If anyone else is made the CDS, the only reason would be that he did not pass the loyalty test.  It is a subject which I will deliberate in the coming weeks.

Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd.) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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