At an official lunch held at the National Defence College in Delhi in November, Lieutenant General Bipin Rawat, vice chief of Army staff who is set to take over as Army chief on December 31, had an informal chat with some of the officers attending the prestigious course.
The news of the surgical strikes by Indian Special Forces across the Line of Control on September 29 was the talk of the town, and senior officers were curious to hear the vice chief’s thoughts about it. Rawat was frank and to-the-point in his assessment.
Rawat told the senior officers that the raids were important and needed to be carried out to ensure that there was a credible response to the September 18 terror attack on the military camp in Uri in which 19 soldiers were killed. The strikes had achieved their limited objectives, but he said that he was not happy with the limited range that the Indian Special Forces had. In his view, he told the attending officers, Indian Special Forces had a long way to go before they could achieve deep penetration surgical strikes, like the one carried out by US Special Forces when they took out Al Qaeda’s Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011.
On Sunday night, as the government appointed him as the next Chief of Army Staff, superseding two of his seniors, military circles were agog.
No one questions the high standards of military leadership that Rawat brings to the job. But for the tradition-bound military, the side-stepping of two senior generals was unpalatable.
The dominant infantry
Ever since General Shankar Roychowdhury hung up his spurs as the Chief of Army Staff in 1997, India has not seen an Army chief from the armoured corps. This would have changed if the Narendra Modi government followed tradition and appointed Lieutenant General Praveen Bakshi as the 26th Chief of Staff of the Indian Army. Bakshi, who is serving as Army Commander at the Kolkata-based Eastern Command, was next in line to be Army chief by virtue of being the seniormost officer.
The leaks emanating from Delhi’s South Block, which houses the Ministry of Defence, claimed that Rawat had far more operational experience than those he had superseded.
Since the 1971 war with Pakistan, those from the armoured corps have rarely been involved in active operations, mostly taking command of large formations, once they were promoted to the rank of Brigadier. However, as tank men, they rarely saw action in battle, until a decision was taken to draft them into the Rashtriya Rifles. That led to many armoured corps officers seeing action in Jammu and Kashmir, carrying out counter insurgency operations like their counterparts in the infantry.
However, the bulk of the soldiering continued to be carried out by the infantry as its role increased due to deployments to combat the growing insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir. This led to more promotions for infantry officers, and a corresponding increase in their appointments as Army chiefs.
But this was not the real reason for Rawat’s appointment as Army chief. The decision was largely driven by two people in the government – Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval.
Last year, in June, Indian Special Forces from 21 (Para) Special Forces slipped into Myanmar to carry out raids on Naga insurgents who had attacked a Dogra battalion in Manipur a few days earlier, killing 18 soldiers. The special operation was carried out under the operational control of the Dimapur-based 3 Corps, then headed by Rawat.
Discussions at Army headquarters during the planning of this operation saw a close interaction between Rawat and Doval. Though the two men are years apart in age, the fact that both are Garhwalis helped them cement a working relationship.
Rawat’s father was an old-school soldier, who retired as a Lieutenant General. The senior Rawat had commanded the XI Gorkha Rifles as a Colonel, just like his son would decades later.
Aggressive Pakistan policy
A senior insider told this reporter that for Modi, the appointment of his first Chief of Army Staff was a crucial decision. The prime minister wanted an officer steeped in the art of counter insurgency, and also with considerable experience on the Line of Control – a key factor in his calculations in his aggressive Pakistan policy.
The fact that Rawat had also commanded 19 Infantry Division, which is based in Baramulla in Jammu and Kashmir, gave added heft to his candidature over Bakshi. The fact that Rawat was also aggressive and open to employing unconventional tactics, ended up virtually sealing his appointment as Army chief months ago.
As the commander of a UN Brigade in the Congo, Rawat had been frustrated with the lack of operational freedom to take on the rebel troops aggressively. In a rare interview to the Telegraph, London, in 2008, Rawat pointed out how the rules of engagement of the United Nations did not allow him to take a far more aggressive posture, which was required in the situation he found his troops in.
The government was aware that overlooking a senior general would be controversial, especially since the Bharatiya Janata Party, in 1983, had been critical of the supersession of Lieutenant General SK Sinha by the Indira Gandhi government, which appointed General AS Vaidya as Army chief. Following this, Sinha put in his papers in protest, and over the years became quite close to the Bharatiya Janata Party.
But the Modi government was also keen on bringing in some “big bang reforms” along the lines of its much vaunted demonetisation policy. Clearly this is a government that believes in the optics of a reform policy more than the substance or its nuances.
There was some serious thinking in the government that Bakshi could be appointed India’s first Chief of Defence Staff with Rawat as Army chief.
The government argued internally that Bakshi, considered a strategic planner, with his expertise in the mechanised forces, was best suited for the Chief of Defence Staff role, which would provide single-point advice to the political leadership.
However, it was also argued that operational experience was no guarantee of great strategic successes.
Take, for instance, the case of General BC Joshi, who served as Army chief between July 1993 and November 1994, which proved to be a golden period for the Indian Army.
Joshi was from the armoured corps, and took charge when insurgency was at its peak in Jammu and Kashmir. He immediately went about setting up the Rashtriya Rifles, which carries the burden of counter-insurgency operations in the state till today. He also created the first Special Forces Regiment of the Indian Army, something similar to the Special Operations Command of the US. His untimely death during his tenure led to a sudden halt of his far-reaching reforms in the Indian Army, some of which were undone by his unexpected successor, General Shankar Roychowdhury, also from the armoured corps.
If the government goes ahead and instals Bakshi as India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, it hopes to initiate reforms that will address some of the major gaps that have crept into India’s military preparedness in the last three years of its rule at the Centre.
The new normal
While the government set aside the seniority principle for the Army, it held it up while appointing the next chiefs of the Air Force, and the country’s internal and external intelligence agencies.
It appointed Air Marshal BS Dhanoa as the next Air Chief, Rajeev Jain as the next director, Intelligence Bureau, and Anil Dhasmana as secretary, Research and Analysis Wing. All three appointees were the seniormost officers available.
While Jain had been the head of the Delhi Intelligence Bureau unit, considered a crucial position usually reserved for its best officers, he had also done stints looking at political as well as security intelligence.
Anil Dhasmana, an Indian Police Service officer with a long stint in India’s external intelligence agency, had two tenures in Germany, and also handled Pakistan before he was moved as the director of the Aviation Research Centre, a secretive unit created with US help after the 1962 Sino-Indian war, and tasked primarily to gather technical intelligence.
With his team in place, and Doval maintaining a close watch, the government is increasingly shaping India’s foreign policy that is best viewed through an aggressive security posture. Whether this strategy will succeed, remains to be seen.