Maj Gen Ashok K Mehta (retd)
NO one expected a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) as he has come out: a service chief elevated to that post to serve till the age of 65. Nor did anyone visualise a Department of Military Affairs (DMA) unique to India under him that would subsume all three Service headquarters and take away from Defence Secretary, the czar of the Ministry of Defence, a bulk of his charter of work. This monumental change has happened surprisingly swiftly and smoothly when the bureaucracy appeared ganged up against the CDS system, largely due to the impetus provided by PM Narendra Modi and NSA Ajit Doval, who was tasked to evolve the new security apparatus.
For the government, while appointing a CDS was an electoral compulsion, the DMA that has emerged is a virtual coup for soldiers in a country where tight civilian control over the military is the rule.
In the past, many noble souls, including a de facto Raksha Mantri, Arun Singh, and a former Cabinet Secretary, Naresh Chandra, not to mention the strategic doyen, K Subramaniam, had worked on the immaculate conception of a CDS. All had factored the ‘fear of the fourth Chief’ and the consternation he would cause among the civil and political elite. In the UPA era, the Naresh Chandra Task Force (NCTF) had, therefore, recommended a Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee with civil and military officers cross-posted in the MoD and Service Headquarters but nowhere near the path-breaking CDS system now instituted. Even the whimper of a Permanent Chairman of CoSC was stymied by the bureaucracy in the MoD which ensured Raksha Mantri AK Antony kept the idea in deep freeze, despite the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh wanting to break the deadlock.
This time around, not only is there a CDS, Gen Bipin Rawat, but he is also presiding over a newly minted DMA. More importantly, he is on an unprecedented extended service till the age of 65, a former Army Chief enjoying the confidence of the PMO and NSA. But there was one caveat. For the CDS to be politically acceptable, his wings had to be clipped; shorn of all military command. This defanging enabled the addition of a new military department in the MoD headed by a General. But breaking the sacrosanct age rule of 62 was not easy due to the disquiet it would create in the bureaucracy, resulting in asymmetry in the existing civil-military equation.
The civil service had hoped for a sanitised version of the NCTF model with the fourth Chief selected from Army Commanders and equivalent counterparts and not the promotion of a Service Chief which would raise his retirement age from 62 to 65 years, well above the superannuation age of 62 years of the seniormost civil servant, the Cabinet Secretary.
The military, on its part, was hoping the CDS would be on a par with the Cabinet Secretary placed in the same Warrant of Precedent at number 11. Although Service Chiefs and Cabinet Secretary are in the same pay band, Service Chiefs are one notch below the Cabinet Secretary in protocol. The immediate problem, though, was the issue of the Gazette notification for General Rawat’s seamless transition to the CDS without break in service following a separate CCS clearance for this. He was to retire on December 31 and government orders could take weeks. The PM had to intervene to ensure an extraordinary Gazette notification cleared the decks for CDS within days for his reappointment without break in service.
For civil supremacy to prevail, the CDS was clubbed with Service Chiefs, ranked in protocol below the Cabinet Secretary and stripped of all command functions, including, surprisingly, even tri-service organisations which he would administer. The CDS, though, would exercise implied authority over single Service Chiefs, something that personalities would eventually determine. The British CDS and his civilian counterpart, the Permanent Undersecretary enjoy equivalence in seniority and represent the highest ranking civilian and military officials in government.
On January 17, the Defence Ministry issued its second tranche of change in business rules transferring additional duties from the Department of Defence to the DMA. This substantial shift in charter and responsibilities, from the Defence Secretary to the CDS, will enable the Defence Secretary to concentrate on his primary mission of evolving defence policy, planning for war-preparedness and defence of India. Integral to these tasks, he would remain the point person in the Defence Acquisition Council, responsible for capital procurement of the armed forces. The civil-military DAC Secretariat provided by the Integrated Defence Staff will now shift to the DoD. At this rate, ultimately, the DoD could merge with the DMA.
Finally, a CDS has arrived, but stripped of every notion of command so that the imagined fears of the political elite are put to rest, but undercutting the higher command mechanism. He will not exercise any command over single Service Chiefs and even tri-service organisations which he will merely administer will make him a super Chief of General Staff. The Defence Secretary remaining responsible for defence of the realm when his defence department has been cut to size by the DMA is quite odd. This has been an outstanding aberration requiring rectification.
Expecting from the CDS a blueprint on theatrisation, given India’s strategic geography, nexus of adversaries, but meagre resources, will not be easy. General Rawat will be carrying the CDS baton, not a magic wand, though he will now have a map and a compass to help him out.
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