The CDS Debate: Sidestepping the issue

A recent article in the Indian Express, “Do we need a Chief of Defence Staff?”   by Gen VP Malik and Anit Mukherjee got me thinking.

First, a full and honest disclosure, my knowledge on the subject is that of a village idiot, recently arrived. For that reason itself, I decided to take the plunge here, exhibit my ignorance and hopefully learn something about an issue from those familiar with it.

My impression of the whole issue was that though most were in favour, the concept of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) was a subject mired in controversy between the Services. Further, that it entailed integrating the Ministry of Defence and the three Services’ Head Quarters. That the IAF was playing Chief Spoiler and that the Defence Ministry was trying to avoid an open public spat and therefore kept the matter pending. I wasn’t wrong. I was only partly right.

This article, in the Indian Express, dwells  on recent statements by the CAS wherein he has stated that the time is not ripe for a CDS, that the matter needs more debate regarding the type of system to adopt. This is, in fact, a repetition of what the CAS said almost a year earlier in Mar 2010, when he took over as Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee – “As a concept, I believe there should be a CDS. As to what model we should adopt that best suits our country, that we have to study.” So basically his stand remains unchanged.

In passing, the article also mentions that there is some political opposition to it as well. Whereas, according to my thinking on the subject, the issues were  – primarily inter Service rivalry and more specifically a fear amongst the two numerically smaller Services of being swallowed up by the Army. Also that there did not seem to be a fairly clear idea of how to bring about total integration.

Considering that this issue has been officially hanging fire for over a decade and that there is a need for debate, I wonder why it has not yet happened?  Surely 10 years is long enough for the Services to get their act together and come to some sort of general understanding on the course to adopt?   Our own in-house deliberations should have by now been able to bring about some clarity. To that extent aren’t we guilty of dragging our feet on a subject which is of strategic importance? There is much that the Services can iron out on their own and the statement of the CAS implies that this has not yet happened. Besides, subsequently a lot more inter action will be needed with other agencies before any meaningful action can be taken and progress can be made. Unless our own homework is complete and thorough, we will not be able to contribute meaningfully and effectively to any debate.

An amateurish Google attempt brought out quite a bit of literature and some revelations.  There seems to be resistance to the idea from the bureaucracy as well as from the political establishment itself. The bureaucracy is worried about dilution of its powers and the political establishment has reservations on a number of counts. While the bureaucratic resistance is not a surprise, it is also not a serious hurdle to overcome as can be discussed later. From  what little I have learnt so far, the real spoiler seems to be what can best be called lackluster initiative and the way our systems function.

To take just one example, of the lackluster initiative, Vinod Anand in the Journal of Defence Studies of 2008, “Integrating the Indian Military: Retrospect and Prospect” has this to say “It is believed that the process of consultation with political parties has been initiated by issuing letters to National and State level political parties by the Raksha Mantri in March 2006 for obtaining their views on the establishment of Chief of Defence Staff. Further, reminders have also been issued in June 2006 and again in January 2007. Replies from only four political parties have been received so far.”

And so the democratic clock keeps ticking, unfortunately at times it seems as if that is all it does – keep ticking and ticking and ticking. Where National Security is concerned, however,  there is a very real need to use a stop watch instead.

Coming back to the subject. Whenever the CDS is discussed in public, the main reason for no progress is often given as a difference of opinion amongst the Services – more specifically resistance by the IAF. However, the fact that bureaucratic and political barriers are not openly or often discussed, makes one wonder if the whole exercise is simply motivated towards finding a scapegoat and avoiding a solution? Why this sidestepping of the complete picture? The article by Gen Malik and Mr Mukherjee devotes almost three of its five paragraphs to the remarks of the CAS and IAF resistance while disposing of the bureaucratic and political reservations in three or four general sentences, with no specifics.

Be that as it may, this post is not about criticising commentators and analysts but to look at the whole issue in a holistic manner. I have tried to bring out what my limited research has unearthed as the hurdles – that the system itself, which includes the Services as also the bureaucracy and the political establishment have all been dragging their feet. Moreover, the manner of our functioning is such that it has inbuilt delay mechanisms and a ‘we are like that only’ syndrome to further complicate matters.

Having made a beginning, it would be worthwhile to now move on and actually look at specifics in the next installment.

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