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Three pitfalls of CDS, Dept of Military Affairs and why it should make us sceptical

CDS Rawat must articulate a management structure in the DMA that is internally consistent and logical. Otherwise, the military risks being neither here nor there.

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India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, recently argued that India’s military is poised at the “cusp of a transformation”. He is absolutely right on this, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi deserves credit for unleashing the beast of reform within the military. India’s strategic community was pleasantly surprised when he unexpectedly announced the decision to create the post of Chief of Defence Staff on 15 August 2019.

However, when the mandate of the CDS was announced on 24 December, there was an even greater surprise because the CDS virtually got everything but the kitchen sink. The creation of a Department of Military Affairs (DMA), a previously unheard of initiative in India, empowered the CDS in an unprecedented and unexpected manner. However, this rush to reform must be carefully thought through and sagely handled — otherwise, its unintended consequences can cause significant institutional turbulence.

Also read: Modi govt’s CDS is big reform, but this is what the charter lacks

Two speculations

The need to have a CDS has been debated, with varying levels of intensity, for more than six decades. It is entirely to Modi’s credit, therefore, that India, without an immediate and precipitate crisis, is undertaking such significant defence reforms. His announcement of creating a CDS gave rise to two speculations.

First, which is still unanswered, is why did the Prime Minister at this particular juncture do so? Early on in his first term in office, PM Modi had identified defence reforms to be a ‘key priority’ but eventually made few substantive changes. What, therefore, was the specific triggering event that led to his decision to create a CDS? Was it a concern over defence expenditure and fiscal inefficiency, military operations like Balakot or Doklam, or was he spurred on to do so by his top advisers? At this stage, without an interview with Modi, we can only offer conjectures.

The second source of speculation centred on the powers of the CDS. PM Modi’s announcement to create a CDS led to a flurry of commentaries speculating whether this post would be an empowered one or a mere figurehead. On this, the prime minister’s office gave an emphatic reply — it has firmly empowered the CDS by, among other measures, creating the Department of Military Affairs.

The DMA is a completely new organisation that, to the best of our knowledge, has never been recommended by any previous reform committee. Surprisingly, there is almost no scholarship on defence reforms that even mentions this idea. Which brings us to another set of unanswered questions — how and why was the DMA conceived? The former is, as yet, unanswerable, but having recently written a book on civil-military relations, if I was to take a guess on the latter — the DMA was created primarily to give the military a seat at the high table.

Also read: Modi govt’s CDS-Dept of Military Affairs: Cosmetic change or increasing defence efficiency?

Central fault in India’s civil-military relations

The central fault in India’s civil-military relations is not that of civilian control (a rare success for our democracy), but more about the relations between the bureaucracy and the military. After the 2001 post-Kargil defence restructuring, military reformers settled upon the reasonable idea of integrating the civilian and military bureaucracies by cross-posting officers.

However, it is entirely to the intransigence of the civilian bureaucrats that even this relatively minor reform could not succeed. The DMA, therefore, appears to be an initiative from the uniformed community to ensure that, by virtue of being a department in the government of India, the military gets to drive policy and not go through what they perceive as a meddlesome civilian bureaucracy.

This would all be well and good, but there are at least three potential pitfalls of this initiative. First, the DMA is a uniquely Indian institution as one fails to think of another democracy that has a similar organisation. This should immediately make us somewhat sceptical.

Second, the DMA is based on an underlying assumption that one can clearly differentiate between military and defence issues — which is entirely untrue. Both are so intertwined that any attempt to do so will only create inconsistencies and further turbulence.

Third, the military’s education policies and short and rapid tenure system does not augur well for its ability to staff the DMA. To be effective, the DMA would require military officers to tenet these posts for a duration of more than three years, at a minimum. However, that requirement does not comport with typical career trajectories in the military. More crucially, the military generally does not incentivise domain expertise and will have to properly think through policies to groom officers to assume such unique positions — which intersects civilian and military bureaucracies. There is no indication as yet that this is being done.

Also read: CDS was needed. But Modi govt also creating Department of Military Affairs is a big bonus

Neither here nor there

The main responsibility for crafting an appropriate organisation falls squarely on General Rawat who has his task cut out for him. While doing so, he has to attach utmost importance to creating an appropriate interface between the DMA, the services and the defence secretary.

The current reforms are very dynamic, but beyond media interviews, the CDS should perhaps focus on creating a vision document explaining the rationale, powers and role of the DMA (and the CDS itself) within the Ministry of Defence.

One structure, with obvious similarities, that might be instructive is the British system of higher defence management, but they have an intricate system of councils and boards.

Also read: Not media, CDS Rawat should be talking to military chiefs about India’s defence reform

It is right to assert, as General Rawat recently did, that India need not follow any particular model, but he has to articulate a management structure that is internally consistent and logical. If we fail to do so, then we risk having a military perennially poised at the cusp of a transformation — neither here nor there.

The author is a non-resident fellow at Brookings India and the author of ‘The Absent Dialogue: Politicians, Bureaucrats and the Military in India’. Views are personal.

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  1. Firstly, let us start from the transfer of power on 15 Aug 1947. Except for Nehru being anointed as the Prime Minister, nothing had changed in this country. Mountbatten who have been the Viceroy continue to head the government as a Governor General and the Chief of Staff (of Defense) also continued in his own office. After he had done enough damage Mountbatten decided leave and Rajagopalachari took over as the first Indian Governor General. It was time to change the CoS also but Nehru was in favour of a Briton continuing because he believed that Indian officers did not have experience commanding an army. But he wanted to tho hear it from the serving Indian officers themselves. So he called a meeting and announced his desire. Gen Nathu Singh Rathore rose to the occasion and asked a simple question: Mr Prime Minister, what experience did you have when you took over as the PM of this newly independent country? The wily Nehru (or was it merely ignorance of military protocols?) asked: would you then like to take over? Gen Rathore replied that Gen Cariappa was senior to him and competent enough to take over. And thus Gen Cariappa became India’s first Commander in Chief.

    But Cariappa fumbled. He said that soldiers will not do clerical duties sitting in Delhi but will be deployed on the borders. And thus one of the most important functions of command-administration- went to civilian babus. The armed forces have paid a heavy price for it over the years and continue to be saddled by a corrupt and treacherous bureaucracy. Maybe it was for his handing over the most important function of administration to them that Gen Cariappa was bestowed the rank of Field Marshal shortly before his death and long after Fd Marshal Manekshaw had become the nation’s first Fd Marshal, post 1971 ops.

    With the key function of administration with them, the issue of civilian control of military was reduced to academic interest. As in government administration elsewhere the key was with the babus. And it should not be forgotten that they have actually reduced government administration to a synonym for corruption and treason. While the scams that have been reported in main stream media is sufficient to prove this contention, with the military the other damning effect can been seen in the protests of the veteran soldiers who have to unfortunately be the voice of the voiceless in uniform and under the Army, Navy and Air Force Acts.

    Coming to Bipin Rawat (I loath to add the rank General before his name) one wonders how he could have superseded two other Generals to become the Chief of Army Staff and then go on to become the first CDS. One may recollect the Chain of Succession that had become a matter of public discussion when Gen V K Singh’s date of birth issue was a hot topic. Anyhow, one thing is clear that Bipin Rawat has good apple shining rapport with the civilian bureaucrats who have been calling the shots everywhere at all times. Even the Prime Minister had reported castigated the babus for wasting his first five years and warning them that he will not let them repeat it this time.

    As far as Bipin Rawat’s contribution to the nation or military is concerned the answer is going to be what Clement Atlee had acceded to the Indian National Congress and its role in driving the Britons out: minimal.

  2. Unless one is mistaken this is now the 3rd op-ed on the CDS pitfalls issue – Raghavan, Panag, Mukherjee – all cerebral, and all with prior military service. Unfortunately since they are all officers and gentlemen, they are tending to skirt the main issue – inter services politics and turf wars. Which is a feature of all military reforms.

    This phase of military reform will be meaningless if the CDS cannot deliver on Theater Commands – jointness translated from books and lectures and policy papers to the field of operations to tangibly improve war fighting. Since that will cause loss of turf and budgets, each service will fight this in its own way.

    This is why Gen Panag’s take that the CDS should be talking to the service chiefs not media – actually cutting deals with them, one-or-one or cumulatively, is the closest to the mark. This deal making will cause friction. We are already seeing bit of that with the Navy fighting its corner vigorously against canceling the 3rd Carrier.

    All this is good.Far too long have we perpetuated this myth in the Indian public that only the politician and the babu is to blame for India’s military deficiencies. Military leadership and their own military bureaucracies have done no less damage.

    Let questions like why the Army must still have 3 Strike Corps – which it cant mobilize rapidly for short wars anway, Why IAF wants to keep flying helicopters when US, Pak, China, UK have surrendered almost all of them to the Army, and whether Navy should have a third carrier and what kind, be debated in public by the service chiefs and their staffs. This debate will expose the fact – and it badly needs exposing – that each service has its own war scenarios, where each sees little role for the other, and there is no integrated or joint thinking about Indian military challenges and strategy.

    It will then be DMA’s job – hopefully by then housed in India’s mini-Pentagon – to deliver on this foundational document, and then for the CDS to deliver a political settlement with roadmap among the three services on the Theater Command structure that will operationalize this strategy.

  3. A laboured piece that arrives at nothing. Modi is an emperor without clothes and he only appoints people who admire his Loro Piana outfits with Rawat being a prime example. His political statements as Army chief should have ensured his tenure was cut short. Instead he was rewarded with this sinecure.

  4. A new begining definitely seems to have been made by creation of DMA. However, how this is perceived by Babu’s of MoD will decide it’s fate. If past experience is anything to go by then military officers are no match for the machinations of beauraucracy. But then Military officers are known to improve on under any situation and hopefully will do this in subtle manner in the present scenario.

  5. A well researched article. The bureaucracy at the MOD will never be happy on creation of DMA. It’s credit to Modi who could get the CDS and DMA going. I am sure the bureaucrat s at the PMO must have found very difficult to disagree with their brothers at the MOD and tow the line of the PM. Every new organisation or office will have teething problems in the beginning particularly mids of a hostile step brothers . The responsibility for the defence of India assigned to the Defence Secy is some how doesnot fit in the scheme of things. It was possibly some dirty tricks played by the people while framing the business rules in 1961. It was cut and paste from the British procedures where the defence Secy, the minister in charge of defence, is responsible for defence of nation. In Indian context the Defence minister , counterpart of British Def Secy, should be accountable for the defence of the country. The Def Secy , who is a step lower than the service chiefs is a senior staff officer of MOD responsible to run the MOD as per the directives of the RM. When war breaks out it is not only the MOD but the other departments of the GOI have to join hands to support the MOD for the defence of India. So claiming that the defence Secy is responsible for the defence of India is a myth. He is to coordinate the efforts of the different entities of MOD and help the defence minister to run the ministry. Recently the CDS made a statement that in democratic system the services have to be under the civilians. It is absolutely right but the civilian control does not mean the bureaucratic control . The civilian control means the Parliament and the constitution of India. This point has to be understood by one and all responsible to run the govt of India then only the D MA and the CDS can carry out the assigned charter as desired.
    The present RM will have to be more assertive for a meaningful raising and functioning of DMA. We feel that as HM, during the previous inning of Modi Shri Rajnath Singh
    was more effective. Certain decisions taken by him as HM have telling effects on the functioning and morale of the CAPF. However , contrary to the expectations of the services and it’s retirees, the MOD has not come out from the shadows of the the previous RMs and their bureaucratic lobby, precieved to be unfriendly to the interests of services , for whose efficient functioning they are responsible. The recent example is the issue of disability pension where the PCDA (P) on behest of MOD despite the hon SC stay orders, issued a directive and stopped the pension of all dissable retires services . Though with court intervention the directive was withdrawn within 12 days but credibility of MOD was lost and damage done. There are many more such issues where the services feel of being treated as second grade and let down

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