ALI AHMED | 26 APRIL, 2018
A Policewallah As Proto Chief of Defence Staff
NSA Ajit Doval
The armed forces have been delivered another blow. The national security adviser, Ajit Doval, who, as everyone knows from the hagiography that accompanies his actions, has a background in the police and intelligence, is now to also head among his other onerous duties, the defence planning committee. A noted analyst, Manoj Joshi, discerns the new job as equivalent to the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) or permanent Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee.
In a way, the armed forces had this coming for two reasons. One is that they have not put their act together on this score for some three decades. The air force has always held out against a CDS like appointment. Frustrated, the army backtracked from its advocacy some mid last decade and then got back to renew its support for the appointment. The silent service, the Navy, has kept itself aloof from the controversy.
As a result, the three major committees that have looked at the matter since the turn of the century, the Arun Singh Committee as one of the four committees set up after the Kargil Review Committee recommendations was relatively clear on the CDS functions. The Naresh Chandra Committee set up by the comatose United Progressive Alliance government, was mealy mouthed in its recommendation, no doubt because it was headed by a heavy weight bureaucrat. Even the Shekatkar committee, that turned in its report to the previous defence minister, was unable to make a dent in the status quo.
If the army chief is to be believed on his ‘two front’ formulation, the need to have the three horses pull together has seldom been greater. The air force in its latest exercise, advertised as the largest ever, shifted from a focus on the western front to the eastern front midway through the exercise, underlining how seriously they take the collusive threat from India’s two adversaries.
This accentuates the need to optimize India’s resources devoted to defence. The prime minister in his first address to the commanders of the services at their conclave aboard the INS Vikramaditya had intoned as much. If this requires a head umpire over the three chiefs to have them work out of one script then the higher defence organization must have it. Service parochialisms cannot be allowed to stand in the way of national security. If and since the three services were reluctant to see eye to eye on this, then the appointment has to be thrust on them.
However, the quasi CDS is yet another stop gap measure. It is evident that it is not only service reluctance at play but bureaucratic chicanery. The bureaucrats are loath to have a high-ranking serviceman at the upper reaches of the hierarchy, not only for protocol and reasons of privilege but that the appointment would carry powers and responsibilities that they currently revel in, conferred by allocation of business rules dating to just prior to the Sino-Indian war. If the defence minister, the cabinet committee on security and the national security committee were to get a single point advice, they would not be able to play off one service against the other, that service veterans inform is a favoured pastime in the defence ministry.
The series of defence ministers over the tenure of this government – known to be short on talent - have not been able to fill the chair they occupied. The over-worked Mr. Jaitley (who has been in and out of hospitals) had two innings in the chair; Mr. Parrikar was home sick when in it; and the current one has yet to overcome her hangover as party spokesperson. That the defence planning committee has been foisted on the defence establishment suggests as much.
The second - more significant if less visible - reason is that the defence planning committee is not so much to stream line the work and output of the defence sector as much as to revisit civilian control over the military. Every institution in the country has been hollowed out. The spate of exonerations by the courts of people involved in carnage and terror – specifically Maya Kodnani and Swami Aseemanand respectively – and the Supreme Court’s reluctance to get to grips with the mysterious death of fellow judge, Loya, suggests that the armed forces are the last institution standing. Since their professional and apolitical character makes it difficult to trammel them, as has been done with the media, police and bureaucracy, they need further lynchpins to tie them down.
The hurried setting up a defence planning committee through executive order with barely a year to go to elections can only have a rationale outside of the strategic lamppost under which most would look. There is more to be done in the reset of India over the forthcoming term of the government, once the matter of elections between then and now is out of the way. The declining support in the people at large and the masses after a series of hit-wickets by the Modi government, such as demonetization, general service tax, and the laxity in condemning and action against rapes, polarization appears the only card left. Retention of power can now only be through letting the foot-soldiers of Hindutva crawl through society. On this count, the only institution left that can put the foot-soldiers of Hindutva back into the bottle needs tight control. Furthermore, the armed forces need an ideological dose of cultural nationalism, that can be safely administered when the government is back in saddle. Consequently, the committee needs to also be seen in the light of civil-military relations, in addition to any strategic sense it may make.
It is for this reason that the national security adviser, renowned as an intelligence czar, has been appointed as head of this committee. He has long had a foot in the Hindutva camp. In fact, he can be credited with organizing the support for the Modi wave within the strategic community well before it became a tide. The social media blitz of 2013-14 by the brigade of saffron trolls, that led up to the Modi tsunami, also has an intelligence man’s fingerprints all over it. With his mastery of the national security apparatus and his impeccable ideological credentials, besides a lifetime in high risk appointments, has him well suited for the post.
The links between his erstwhile think tank and the military are deep. There are several retired members of the brass associated with the VIF. On leaving its directorship he had handed over the reins to a retired army chief. Thus, he has a constituency in the military, that in turn has amongst the ranks of its veterans some hyper nationalists. In effect, he has an organic support base that would not find it odd for him to be virtually at the military apex, more or less displacing the minister. If there are doubts in the strategic community they can outshout the opposition. Not to forget, the army chief is a Doval acolyte and ethnic cousin, who owes his elevation to the rank over two of his seniors to intercession on his behalf by someone.
It’s a job tailormade for Mr. Doval. In discussions on the CDS appointment, the usual refrain is that the appointment should carry weight in the hierarchy conscious military by being either be first among equals among the chiefs as another four-star general since, in India’s case, a five-star general makes for field marshal, a rank not readily conferred. Though Mr. Doval has cabinet rank in his capacity as national security adviser, he would be rather pleased with the arrangement on two counts. One, as a policeman he would have likely nursed a grouse against the military’s chip on the shoulder against counterparts in khakis. Two, as a military school product, he would have dreamed – as with any other cadet - of making it to general rank.
In short, the defence planning committee has more to it than meets the eye. Its true role will only emerge if this government has a term following this one and then, it would not only be in better strategizing by the Indian military, but in revising the very ethos of the military.