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New CDS will have to hit the ground running

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The first thought that comes to mind with the recent appointment of General Anil Chauhan, a successor to General Bipin Rawat, as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) is better late than never. For a long moment — more than nine months since the passing of General Rawat in a tragic accident — there was a niggling worry that the government had enough of working with a CDS and may not appoint a successor. But the government came through and appointed Chauhan as the new CDS and as secretary of the department of military affairs (DMA), which is now responsible in the ministry of defence for running the forces.

To be honest, this was no surprise. Chauhan’s name was doing the rounds since June when, in an unprecedented move, the ministry of defence amended the service rules to consider all serving and retired three and four-star officers below 62 for the job. Chauhan was then serving as military adviser to the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), after his retirement as the three-star Eastern Army commander in 2021. Common sense would suggest that the CDS, who is the first among equals with the three service chiefs who hold a four-star rank, be of the same rank as them.

All appointments in the military follow a strict criterion, thus you cannot command a brigade if you have not commanded a battalion or a company earlier. The four-star service chiefs are chosen from army commander-level officers, of which there are four in the navy and eight each in the air force and the army. Any of these 20 have the necessary experience and authority to be elevated as the chief of their service. In the case of Rawat, the government confined the pool of candidates to the serving service chiefs and he was appointed when he headed the army. But now, the government seems to have other ideas which could have implications for other senior appointments in the military.

That said, in all fairness, Chauhan has all the necessary qualifications for the job. His career includes serving as army commander of the Eastern Command, director-general of military operations at the army headquarters and military adviser to NSCS. But as a three-star army commander who retired at 60, he was eligible to be considered only after the government amended the service rules, ostensibly to accommodate him. What is evident is that the government has been careful in the appointment and saw it fit to shift the goalposts to accommodate a person who was probably identified earlier. Rawat himself was carefully chosen, having superseded two officers senior to him to become Army chief in December 2016. Thereafter, he earned the confidence of the government and later was appointed as the first CDS and secretary following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement at the Independence Day speech in 2019.

Governments in India have, by and large, appointed chiefs on the basis of seniority. This is to ensure that while you may not always get your preferred person, you will at least ensure that the generals don’t play politics to climb up the promotion ladder. But the government does reserve the right to supersede officers without assigning any reasons. Given the power and authority wielded by the CDS, the considerations of reliability and working comfort may have outweighed others.

Chauhan’s stint in the NSCS secretariat, headed by national security adviser Ajit Doval, will hold him in good stead as he manages the national security architecture. Doval also holds another important appointment as the ex-officio chairman of the defence planning committee (DPC) set up by the government in 2018. This includes the CDS, the service chiefs and has a wide mandate on defence planning, capability development and even drafting a national security strategy.

General Chauhan has a plate overflowing with issues as he takes over this crucial responsibility. His key task will be to pick up the slack on the integration of the armed forces and modernising them. Rawat played an important role as a hammer to knock at silos hemming individual services. Chauhan’s task will be to construct the new edifice of an integrated and modern Indian military.

He will have to do it with a government that is somewhat erratic in its security policymaking. What we get from politicians are declarations and exhortations. Unlike in the United States and China, defence reform in India is left to the men in uniform when it actually requires substantial and sustained political guidance. For example, there has been little put out in public about DPC since it was created. Then, there is the Agnipath scheme, which was announced before Chauhan’s appointment and garnered controversy because it goes against the trend of having soldiers with a high level of professional skills. As it is, the government’s DMA mandate is an awkward one for the CDS because it notionally puts him at odds with the defence secretary whom he will technically outrank. But the CDS appointment is itself a positive development and as with all things new, has sufficient flexibility for change as it unfolds.

Manoj Joshi is a distinguished fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New DelhiThe views expressed are personal.

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