WHEN JAWAHARLAL NEHRU When he became Prime Minister of India at independence in 1947, one of his first acts was to expel the country’s commander-in-chief, General Sir Rob Lockhart, from Flagstaff House, one of the largest mansions of Delhi. In a pointed gesture of civil supremacy, Mr. Nehru then settled in himself. A few years later, he completely abolished the post of commander-in-chief. Since then, the three co-chiefs of the army, navy and aviation have fought, often with great heat.
That changed on January 1 when Bipin Rawat, the army chief (photo), received a new uniform, a stuffed house and a new job: Chief of the Defense Staff (CDS). The creation of such a post has been talked about for decades, especially after the army and the air force fought in a war against Pakistan in 1999. But there was resistance from from civilians, who feared that a CDS could accumulate too much authority, and the air force, which saw it as a takeover by the already dominant army.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has brushed aside these concerns. He has the largest parliamentary majority since 1984, a taste for big gestures and military threats on two fronts. Last year, a terrorist attack in Kashmir resulted in an exchange of air strikes with Pakistan; relationships have been strained ever since. In the east, China’s defense budget is now three times that of India’s. New roads and railroads in Tibet allow the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to quickly move troops to its disputed border with India, while Indian forces are trapped in narrow valleys below. And the reforms of PLA means that a single general would be in charge of all Chinese forces at the border, while Indian command would be divided between officers from different departments.
New CDS will not solve all of these problems. Unlike his British counterpart, General Rawat will in fact exercise no military command. Instead, he chairs a committee of three heads of service, who can always go over his head to the Minister of Defense. But it will have an office of over 60 people and will influence promotions and assignments, which will give it powerful levers to force departments to work together on everything from logistics to training, improving what types soldiers call it “solidarity”.
More importantly, he was also asked to prepare the armed forces for theater orders based on the American or Chinese model. In such a system, all forces in a given area, regardless of their service, are placed under the command of a single officer. This idea was previously anathema to the Air Force, in particular, which negates the idea that an army general could dictate how warplanes should be used.
The Indian armed forces are “at the dawn of a transformation,” says Anit Mukherjee, author of “The Absent Dialogue: Politicians, Bureaucrats and the Military in India”. But he warns that the bureaucratic skirmish of civilians and services has canceled these efforts in the past. India’s only joint command in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands is a largely failed experiment in inter-service harmony.
The promotion of General Rawat also raises questions about civil-military relations. Mr. Modi has been accused of politicizing the armed forces. In 2014, when he became Prime Minister, he gave a ministerial post to V.K. Singh, a former army chief who opposed the previous government. During last year’s election campaign, Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) posted military images on campaign posters and advertised an event in which seven army veterans, including five retired generals, joined the party as the Minister of Defense watched with approval. Another BJP The leader, Yogi Adityanath, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, described the Indian armed forces as “Modi’s army”. These episodes prompted more than 150 high-ranking veterans, including three former army chiefs, to write to the president to express “their concern and concern.”
As chief of the military, General Rawat did little to alleviate these concerns. He “often ventured into political and foreign policy territory with his statements in the media, making many observers uncomfortable,” notes Sushant Singh, a former army officer who is now an editor. deputy chief of Indian Express. In December, a few days before becoming CDSGeneral Rawat provoked anger by criticizing students who protested a controversial citizenship bill.
His successor as head of the military, General M.M. Naravane, struck a very different note in his first public remarks on January 12. “As an army, we swear allegiance to the Constitution of India,” he said. “Justice, freedom, equality and brotherhood … should guide us.” The fact that these values were taken from the preamble to the constitution, which was read aloud during protests across the country, was not lost on anyone. ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “A great modern general”