Finally, India will have a chief of defence staff

Amidst a glut of deeply depressing goings-on across the country, there is good news to cheer not only the Indian military, but also all those concerned about national security. It is now almost certain that there will soon be a Chief of Defence Staff like other established democracies, such as the United States and Britain, have had for ages. Here the very idea has been rejected summarily when presented to successive governments for some reason or the other. It is no secret that in the early years, the fear of a military coup played its part in official thinking, especially after 1958, when General Ayub Khan took over as Pakistan’s first military dictator and his example was followed in Burma (now Myanmar) by Ne Win two years later. This apprehension was unreal in any case. For democracy had taken roots in this country right from the first general elections, and leaders of armed forces were as divided as the Indian polity or Indian society.

Indeed, those in the know used to say: “If you lock up the Army Chief, Vice-Chief and commanders of the fighting Army commands in a room, they won’t be able to agree even on the time of day.” Yet, the mindset on the subject remained so woolly that even in the mid-’90s, an otherwise intelligent secretary of the ministry of defence made the fatuous statement that a Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or a CDS was needed only by those countries which had global interests; the Indian military’s role was defending Indian borders and shores.

It was only after the Kargil War in 1999 that the country woke up to the need for a CDS. The credit for this must go the Kargil Review Committee, headed by India’s pioneering guru in strategy and security. Its other members were eminent journalist George Verghese and Lt.-Gen. (retired) K. K. Hazari. Satish Chandra of the Indian Foreign Service was its member-secretary.

The committee’s case for having a CDS, integrating the three services with the ministry of defence – at present only they are only “attached offices” of the MoD – and making the chiefs of the three services part of the government and not mere commanders of the service to which they belong – was  strong and persuasive. No wonder that a Group of Ministers, headed by L. K. Advani, endorsed it. It seemed that the appointment of the CDS was a done deal. But, at the last minute, the then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee held up a decision on this recommendation, while approving all others.

Asked privately why he had deferred the most important decision, he gave two reasons. First that there was too much bad blood over the issue, as no fewer than nine Air Chiefs had met him to demand the rejection of the CDS concept. Secondly, Vajpayee said, he had consulted former president R Venkataraman and former Prime Minister P. V.  Narasimha Rao, both of whom had been defence ministers during their political careers. They both had advised him to think the matter through. Atalji assured me, however, he would take a decision, one way or the other, within a year. That, alas, was not to be.

 Ten years passed and the UPA-2 Government, headed by Manmohan Singh, realised that a comprehensive review of national security was overdue. So it appointed a Task Force, chaired by Naresh Chandra, a former cabinet secretary and former ambassador to the US, for this purpose. Judging by the evidence the various ministries and other relevant official entities gave it, the task force concluded that the idea of a CDS would not pass muster even now. Therefore, it suggested a step in the right direction. It recommended that there should be a permanent chairman of the Chief of Staffs Committee with a fixed tenure of two years. At present, the chairmanship of the CoSC is rotational and goes to the seniormost serving chief. Consequently, the term of the chairman is usually short – in one case it was precisely 30 days — and because the chairman has to run his own service, he has limited time to devote to the task of promoting inter-Services coordination and cooperation.

The task force took care to prescribe that the permanent chairman would leave the operational functions of the three service chiefs well alone and concentrate on the entire spectrum of inter-Services matters that include the determining of priorities in the acquisition of weapons by the three services. Even more important is the supervision of the Strategic Command. Several former chairmen of the CoSC have confessed they seldom had enough time to confer with the head of the Strategic Command. Sadly, the UPA-2 Government sat on the task force’s report for two years and rejected it just before its inglorious exit. What an irony it is therefore that in the current discussions on the subject, the civilian bureaucracy of the defence ministry, a bane of the national security architecture, is arguing that instead of having a CDS, the country should have a permanent chairman of the Chiefs of Staff.

These ‘abominable no-men’ are unlikely to get their way. For, instead of the do-nothing A K Antony, a very decisive and doer Manohar Parrikar is defence minister. Some of the decisions he has already taken had been hanging fire for close to a decade. For the same reason one can be sanguine about the welcome announcement by the Army Chief, General Dalbir Singh, that the “long-pending” One Rank One Pension scheme would be implemented by the end of April.

Over long years we have witnessed tragic scenes of gallant ex-Servicemen demonstrating at Amar Jyoti at India Gate and then marching to Rashtrapati Bhavan to return their gallantry awards to the President, their Supreme Commander. Let this not be repeated ever again.

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