NEW DELHI: Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has righted a wrong and done her bit to restore to the military some equity and sense of pride.

Referring here to the October 2016 note issued by MOD that equated the status of a 2-star rank officer of the armed services to that of Principal Director in MOD, with repercussions down the line. That this decision to thus downgrade Major Generals/Air Vice Marshals/Rear Admirals was taken by Manohar Parrikar’s well into his tenure as defence minister suggests he was not paying attention.

Or, alternatively, was happy to be led by the nose by the ICS/IAS-wallahs who ever since 1947, after getting a reprieve from prime minister Nehru who once seriously considered dismantling the colonial-era ICS and starting anew, have relentlessly upped their relative status and benefits at the expense not just of the military services but also other, even technical, All India Services.

It is a good thing that this Parrikar decision has been reversed. But it only highlights what the Modi government has failed to do — install the Chief of Defence Staff system that all major, more advanced, militaries long ago adopted.

Parrikar, soon after assuming office, had assured the public that a decision would be made soon on CDS about installing the Chief of Defence Staff system and that it was a priority. Time passed, and there was no CDS.

But a committee under retired Lieutenant General DB Shekatkar was set up by Parrikar to look into this and other matters relating to defence and national security. It, in effect, endorsed the recommendation of the Naresh Chandra Committee on national security set up by the previous Congress Party dispensation. Considering it was headed by a bureaucratic “ustad” whose ability to run circles around politicians to the benefit of the IAS had attained legendary status in babu circles, this committee produced a classic non-decision — appointment of a 4-star officer as CDS without changing the extant system.

In practice this would have meant the Integrated Defence Staff HQrs changing nomenclature-wise into CDS but everything else remaining the same. It was a clever, very clever, ruse — worthy of Chandra’s ustad status, to keep both the IAS and the current armed services chiefs happy, and the situation to change not a whit!

The civilian headlock was retained. And, as far as the military was concerned, so was the supremacy of the chiefs of staff.

In the existing system, the chief of staff is both the administrative and operational head of his armed service — whence his enormous power — power and authority that no service chief would voluntarily surrender to a genuine, full fledged, CDS. Consequently, the 4th 4 star would be the junior most minus any power, authority or standing, and will be able to do nothing and, for all intents and purposes, will be only a figurehead, not the single point adviser to government on all matters relating to defence and the armed services .

Unfortunately, the Shekatkar Committee did not articulate its CDS recommendation in any way different than the Chandra Committee. So Shekatkar and Co. that amounted to little.

This is the reason why deposing before the Committee on Higher Defence Organization chaired by Rajiv Gandhi’s Defence Minister, (now late) KC Pant, (with also now late Air Cmde Jasjit Singh as Member-Secretary) set up during Vajpayee’s time (in the very early 2000s), I had pleaded for the imposition of the CDS system on the military along the lines the original “unification” of the US armed services (with the much later Goldwater-Nicolls Act “plugging the loopholes”) was imposed by the strong willed President Harry S Truman.

Truman, incidentally, dismissed several carrier admirals who dared to oppose his political decision. US Navy was the senior service and resented allowing army, army air force (later the separate US Air Force) parity– no small show of political grit in the wake of the successes of the US aircraft carriers in the Pacific War against the great Imperial Japanese Navy.

I had warned the Committee formally, and Mr Pant privately, that if the CDS was not imposed without regard to individual service views and sentiments, and the services chiefs were approached for their opinions, this reform would sink without trace — and I had specifically mentioned the Indian Air Force in this regard.

The Army is for it because as the senior service it expects to monopolize the CDS post. The Navy is too small to matter and on paper has no strong views on it. It is the IAF which is convinced that with Army in the fray it will always lose out to the army candidate and will have the mortification of a landlubber deciding the fate of the Air Force.

All the Armed Services, however, are loud in proclaiming their support of CDS! The Pant Committee chose to ignore my counsel, and as I had forewarned, the whole thing panned out exactly how I had foreseen, as also the way the institutional resistance to the concept stacked up.

CDS is still no-go for IAF, and will remain so unless a strong leader thrusts the CDS down the entire MOD caboodle, including and especially on the IAS manning its top echelons, even if this means sacking any civil servant and chief off staff opposing this development.

Because, necessarily, a CDS would end the anomaly — a completely idiotic one that, under business rules of the government, actually makes Defence Secretary responsible for the defence and security of the country!!!

Alas, Modi is not that leader in the main because, his public stance apart, he is contemptuous of military officers generally because of such trivial issues as their anglicised ways, including having a drink or two in the evenings in the Mess.

Senior officers who dealt with him when he was Gujarat CM tell stories about his dismissive attitude towards them, and his snarky comments to the effect that they are unavailable for dialogue and discussion after eight, etc.

Assuming the PM can spare some time from his preoccupation with winning the 2019 general elections, Modi would be well advised to get over his unwarranted prejudice against the officer cadre of the armed forces, dispassionately study the issue, and use his common sense to alight on the CDS system to replace the mess that the country has in the present structure of the 3 Services and their fraught relationship with MOD.

He can then instruct Sitharaman to green signal CDS for a system transformation — because independently the defence minister is too much a political light weight to do anything this substantial on her own.

(Bharat Karnad is a Research Professor in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. He writes a blog SecurityWise)