After years of hesitation, the government has appointed a chief of defence staff, a ceremonial head for the three armed forces. Bipin Rawat, who retired as chief of army staff on December 31, will be the first to occupy the position. He will also head the newly created department of military affairs, functioning under the aegis of the defence ministry.

Many have argued that the new post is necessary for the modernisation of the armed forces, for greater coordination between the three services and for the creation of joint theatre commands. But members of the Opposition have also raised concerns, questioning the ambiguities of the new position. They have asked where it fits in with the existing service chiefs, officials in the defence ministry and the president, who is the supreme commander of the armed forces. Most crucially, they raised the question of what this meant for civilian-military relations.

It would be premature to say that the appointment of a chief of defence staff upsets the careful balance in civilian-military relations maintained since Independence – the political leadership has always maintained a firm upper hand – but it may be a major inflection point.

‘First among equals’

Rawat will be permanent chairman of the chiefs of staff committee, consisting of the topmost commanders of the army, navy and air force. Previously, the committee was headed by the service chief who had served the longest on it. But the new chairman’s position is described as “first among equals”. He is a four star general like the other chiefs, has no military command over the other services and can only advise the government on matters that concern all three services.

The department of military affairs is a new addition to the defence ministry, which already had four departments: the department of defence, the department of defence production, the department of defence research and development and the department of ex-servicemen welfare.

The new department will entail the rearrangement of responsibilities, with all matters related to purely military affairs placed under its charge. Rawat, for instance, will have a say in matters related to all three services, such as promotions and foreign postings. He will also be in charge of defence procurements under the revenue budget.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi celebrating Diwali with soldiers of the Indian Army on Sunday in Rajouri, Jammu and Kashmir. Credit: PMO via Twitter

Rawat’s new role will have trimmed the responsibilities of the defence secretary. Like all other service chiefs, he will have the seniority of a cabinet secretary, which means he will outrank the defence secretary. It remains to be seen who will wield more actual influence.

Assuming command

The demand for a chief of defence staff is not new, although a political leadership traditionally suspicious of the military has kept it at bay. Colonial India had a commander-in-chief, who headed the British Indian army. The commanders of the navy and air force were his subordinates.

As the veteran journalist, Inder Malhotra wrote, the commander-in-chief was the “the second-most important man in this country after the viceroy”. He had even been known to challenge the viceroy, the representative of the British monarch in India, and prevail. “The British had the knack of inflicting on their colonies systems that they would never tolerate in their own country,” Malhotra wrote.

After 1947, the post of a tri-service chief was shelved and the president was made the supreme commander of the armed forces. The defence ministry was made the chief link between the government and the armed forces. The army, navy and air force each had their respective commander-in-chief. In 1955, they were rechristened chiefs of staff.

In the early years after Independence, a system of civilian control over the military was established. As political scientist Ayesha Ray writes, the political leadership “downgraded the Indian military’s position both socially and administratively”. A fledgling state tasked with retrieving India from the ravages of colonial rule had few resources left to develop the military, Ray notes. Besides, Pakistan’s misadventures with military coups made the civilian leadership even more keen to ensure the separation of army and politics.

A civilian leadership anxious to keep the military out of decision-making often had a testy relationship with the generals. KM Cariappa, the Indian Army’s first commander-in-chief, is believed to have aired his views on policy matters and economic development until Nehru told him to desist.

Another contestation between the military and government arose when KS Thimayya was appointed army chief in 1957. Thimayya clashed with the powerful VK Krishna Menon, then defence minister. Some accounts suggest that, in the years leading up to 1962 war with China, Nehru was open to the idea of a chief of defence staff but could not appoint him because of the rivalry with Menon.

Other accounts suggest it might have been more than a clash of personalities. Thimayya recommended forming a joint command with Pakistan to ward off the Chinese while Menon had played down the China threat. Nehru, personally opposed to such an alliance, felt Thimayya was trying to force his hand on a policy matter and weighed down heavily on Menon’s side. The Indian political leadership’s misgivings about returning to a colonial style commander-in-chief may also have prevented Thimayya’s elevation.

Soldiers practice for the Republic Day parade in Delhi in 2019. Credit: Money Sharma/AFP

The Indo-China war showed up Menon’s miscalculations and led to his resignation from government. It also triggered a reassessment in civil-military relations, writes Ray, with the setting up of committees where military officers could take part in decision making. The armed forces were also given a free hand in tactical matters. It was a very different army that went to war with Pakistan in 1965, says Ray.

After Kargil

The clamour for a chief of defence staff returned again after the Kargil war of 1999, where the lack of coordination between the army and the air force was criticised. The Kargil Review Committee urged greater integration of the three services and the group of ministers formed to implement the recommendations of the committee in 2001 suggested the appointment of a chief of defence staff. He would be a five-star general who would act as the single-point military advisor to the government.

In 2012, the Naresh Chandra task force on national security also suggested the appointment of a permanent chairman for the chiefs of staff committee. But successive governments shrank from making these appointments. Until now.

In itself, the new appointment does not suggest a radical shift in power. The current post is already a dilution of the 2001 proposals. Besides, several countries have similar posts but with the civilian government firmly in control and no hint of a coup.

A political general?

The cause for disquiet stems from recent statements made by those in government and Rawat himself. For a couple of years now, the Bharatiya Janata Party has repeatedly co-opted the armed forces in its project of hyper-nationalism.

The prime minister donned fatigues to apparate beside forces on the border and in political hoardings. The Pulwama attack and the subsequent air strikes in Balakot also became part of the BJP’s 2019 election campaign, prompting the Election Commission to issue an advisory to political parties to desist from “propaganda involving the activities of the defence forces”. Later in the year, the army in Kashmir was co-opted into selling the government’s decision to strip the state of special status under Article 370 and split it into two Union Territories.

Rawat has also acquired a reputation for being a political general, often taking aim at political opponents of the BJP. In 2018, he commented on the growth of the All India United Democratic Front, an Assam-based party known for representing Bengali-origin Muslims. Days before being appointed chief of defence staff, Rawat lashed out at the Opposition and protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, a pet project of the BJP. Several former generals have protested against the politicisation of the army and the military being drawn into political discourse.

Decades of careful separation between the government and the army seems to have been breached. The appointment of a chief of defence staff takes place in this context. Better coordination between the three forces as well as between the government and the military may be desired. But the government and the army speaking in one political voice is not.