A top post, its promise and peril

The post of CDS can lead either to a transformation of the defence forces or it could sink with a middling mandate

August 21, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 11:21 am IST

On Independence Day, in his inimitable style, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). Officially, this post was first proposed by the Group of Ministers Report in 2001 but the idea for a CDS can be traced back to Lord Louis Mountbatten, the architect of India’s higher defence organisation. In many ways then, this is a culmination of a long cherished dream, and Mr. Modi deserves full credit for it. However, implementation is key, something that perhaps he knows all too well, having dealt with the aftermath of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) rollout and demonetisation.

The Prime Minister therefore needs to be bold with this initiative and should understand that his military and civilian advisers, institutionally, have an interest in undermining it. So the manner in which this office is set up portends either the greatest, necessary transformation of the Indian military or a naam-ke-vaastey appointment with a middling mandate and a middling job.

Currently there are no further details on the proposed powers of the CDS. According to one report, an “implementation committee” has been established comprising the Defence Secretary, Chief of Integrated Defence Staff and other unnamed officers. This itself is a mistake. The committee should ideally be headed by a political leader and/or a rank outsider, who should have no skin in the game. Indeed, the experience of defence reforms in other countries suggests that it is best to have qualified ‘outsiders’ involved in the process. Serving officials can of course assist such an individual or a team but expecting them to, if necessary, curtail their own powers is quixotic.

Overcoming resistance

After his first term in office, Mr. Modi must have realised the aversion within the service headquarters to reform. In more than one Combined Commanders Conference, the annual gathering of senior most officers from all three services, Mr. Modi challenged them to come up with a common plan for greater integration. It is still unclear what the modalities of this proposed plan were, submitted sometime in 2018, but according to Admiral Sunil Lanba, till recently the Chief of Naval Staff and Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, they recommended creating a Permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. Fortunately, Mr. Modi did not settle upon this term, which perceptually is a step below a CDS. These interactions, however, must have revealed an obvious detail — the service chiefs and their headquarters will bitterly oppose creating an empowered CDS. India’s is perhaps the only large military wherein the service chiefs retain both operational and staff functions. This anomaly cannot continue merely because that is the tradition. If this government wants a “new India” it will have to break decisively from the past and draw up a time-bound road map to divest the chiefs of their operational command.

Perhaps one of the best approaches is to focus squarely on the powers and capacity of the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), which will serve (or served) as the secretariat to the CDS. The IDS is the joint staff, created in 2001, and comprises around 270 officers. The services have viewed it with a mix of irritation bordering on contempt. It is usually treated as a career backwaters and perhaps the Prime Minister should examine how many recent chiefs have served in this institution. Going forward, civilians should emphasise joint staff experience as an important consideration for senior officer promotions. On another count, one of the aspects worth looking into is the physical location of the IDS and the office of the CDS. According to some reports, an IDS headquarters is proposed to be built somewhere in Delhi Cantonment. Instead of being shunted, officers in the IDS should occupy prime offices in South Block and the office of the CDS should be located right next to that of the Defence Minister.

Zeroing in

One of the most closely watched decisions will be on appointing the first CDS. The government need not go with the seniority rule and should instead consider a “deep selection” from current pool of flag officers. To begin with, and to assuage the fears of the smaller services, it may be wise to not let an Army officer to first tenet this post. Moreover, it is not necessary, or perhaps even desirable, for a former service chief to be appointed as the CDS. As a fulcrum for future defence transformation and armed with a possible mandate to examine inter-services prioritisation, long-term planning, officer education (including the perennially-imminent Indian National Defence University) and jointness, the CDS can emerge as the biggest “game changer”. But if the services have their way then this will be just another gloried post, without much effective powers.

Finally, an important aspect of any reorganisation should look at the inter-se relations between the military and the Ministry of Defence. This needs to focus on capacity, expertise, decision-making powers and aligning responsibility and accountability. The relations between the civilian bureaucracy and the military are among the biggest fault-lines in the defence apparatus and remedial actions are required, on both sides, to create a professional, well-developed and qualified bureaucracy which integrates both civilian-military expertise.

With this announcement, Mr. Modi and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh have an opportunity to finish a project which Lord Mountbatten was so passionate about. But this is not just about dead Englishmen. Arun Singh, one of the most forward looking quasi-defence ministers, was, according to those who worked closely with him (Mr. Singh), was keen to establish theatre commands back in 2001. However, he was unsure if political leaders at that time would fully support such a transformation. Eventually they did not and the Indian strategic community has been complaining about reforms which “failed to deliver”. Over the next few months, this government has an opportunity to usher in a revolution in defence management — whether they realise this dream or not is up to question.

Anit Mukherjee is Assistant Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, and the author of the forthcoming book, ‘The Absent Dialogue: Politicians, Bureaucrats and the Military in India’

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