The tragic death of India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, in a helicopter crash along with 13 others including his wife Madhulika Rawat, his staff, protection party, and the aircrew was shocking. Happening at a time of heightened global and regional geopolitical tensions, it can be a setback to the laudable and long-overdue structural defence reforms initiated in January 2020 by the Narendra Modi government.
The reforms were aimed at improving military effectiveness through restructuring measures in two primary domains: civil-military relations and inter-services cooperation. While history will be the ultimate judge of General Rawat’s legacy in both, his role in the changes devised in some aspects of civil-military relations is likely to be the most contentious.
The highlights of the reforms were the creation of the post of CDS, multi-hatted as the Principal Military Adviser to the Raksha Mantri, Permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (PC-COSC), and the Head of a newly created Department of Military Affairs (DMA). The resultant and the politically mandated structural transformation of the armed forces to Joint/Theatre Commands needs special mention here. The CDS was not only the top military leader, he was also a key bureaucrat and expected to interface with the political leadership in these capacities. In addition to the normal duties of the hats mentioned, he was mandated to drive reforms. Given a three-year tenure, the CDS was expected to complete major parts of the reforms. It was an unenviable and uphill task that became nearly unmanageable in the timeframe of three years due to Covid-19 and China’s aggression in Ladakh. In the two years that have gone by, civil-military relations transformed the most and may become the lasting and much-debated upon legacy of General Rawat.
Moral choices of higher military
The larger question that requires debate and introspection as part of the legacy is where should the loyalty of the military lie? The Constitution dictates that it lies with the President of India, who is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. It certainly cannot lie with the party in power, which is the structural format of authoritarian governments. The issue is further complicated if the constitutional structure is deformed and the President ipso facto is not an independent agency and judgements deemed to have been made in his name are conflated with those of the government in power. This, at times, creates tensions between legal and moral choices.
The progress of India’s democracy will, to a significant extent, depend on the moral choices of its leaders. In the messy world of politics, survival of leaders will be difficult, if their choices are governed by morality alone. Top military leaders have no such limitations. The price military leaders should be ready to pay is losing the job earlier than planned. For the military, the choice can be clear – ‘Not on my watch’. Such willingness for self-sacrifice enables moral choice and is often enshrined in the motto of India’s military institutions. In practice, it involves a choice between speaking truth to power and pliancy. The grey zone that lies amid the two ends has to be navigated by a moral compass that acts as a conscience keeper.
The moral choices of higher military leadership have to often confront personal ambition – a natural human proclivity. Ambitious military leadership can be the bane of democracy, if being in the good books of the government of the day translates to becoming vulnerable to political manipulations. During his stint as India’s top leader, Rawat sometimes signaled congruence with the ideological bent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and made some controversial statements that cast shadows on the apolitical nature of the Indian military.
One particular legacy during General Rawat’s tenure as CDS belongs to the realm of India’s military being leveraged by the political leadership for electoral purposes. Military as a symbol clearly has vote-catching power. It is evident in the ceremonial and repetitive use of symbolic military power during certain events.
What the new CDS will deal with
The creation of the CDS and the DMA was expected to reduce the distance between the government and the military. It could also usher in the possibility of the ruling party and the military cosying up. The government has for sure tasted blood by leveraging the military for partisan politics. A fairly long list includes use of posters of the military during elections after post-Uri strike, solidarity for frontline medical workers, building overbridges in Mumbai, yoga sessions, projection of the prime minister as originator of the idea of flying beneath the clouds for the Balakot strike, cleaning up the garbage on the Mount Everest route, wearing of military uniform by the Prime Minister, and the recent inauguration of the Purvanchal Expressway in Uttar Pradesh.
The participation of the Indian Air Force (IAF) during the inauguration of the Purvanchal Expressway witnessed landing and takeoff for fighter and transport aircraft on the strip earmarked for emergencies and could be justified. That it was also followed by an airshow exposed the links of the event to the elections in Uttar Pradesh.
Preserving the military wherewithal while honing skills for combat is a sheath anchor of military preparations. It would be surprising if the IAF has operational and logistic slack amid extant geopolitical tensions. One also wonders whether India’s meagre defence budget can afford such indulgences. Moreover, the opportunity costs cannot be ignored.
Such an event would have involved detailed planning and coordinated preparations including rehearsals. It is not known whether any reservations were raised in writing. If they were, the government may be within its rights to overrule. If no question was raised, it is cause for concern as it indicates professional pliancy. Needless to say, such objections if not raised in writing, carry little value. Realistically, it would be vain to expect the politicians who have tasted the electoral success of military symbolism to change course.
Going forward, the newly appointed CDS will also have to deal with political pressures that demand choices and weigh them on moral scales. The hope lies in the moral fibre of the military leader, whose personal ambitions are subordinated to the larger cause. In the arena of national security, the consequences of moral failure can be grave.
General Rawat as the first CDS of India will have a special place in India’s history. His credentials as a field commander are laudable. The larger moral question that history must seek to answer is – where did his loyalty lie?
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 Neera Majumdar)