The tragic death of the Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, in a helicopter crash yesterday has unsettled the leadership of India’s armed forces at a critical time. The general was just getting the integration of the three forces sorted out, even as the threat from massed Chinese forces looms to the east and north.
India’s security is not in safe harbour, but rather in very choppy seas. Nagaland is burning, enraged by a counter-insurgency operation gone horribly awry. Kashmir is far less calm than it seemed until a couple of months ago. The regime change in Afghanistan has weakened India geopolitically – and strengthened Pakistan.
The government had set far too much store by their expectation of benign protection from former US president Donald Trump. It has failed to put a coherent strategy in place in the year since that presumed trump card was aced.
It must act decisively now.
Thorough probe required
Given the wide array of external enemies, a thorough probe must establish whether any foul play caused the crash. Since the commanding officer pilots such VIP flights, mechanical failure or sabotage are more likely causes for the crash than pilot error or weather conditions.
We have not been given details, but if the pilot did not signal distress about some kind of mechanical fault, something evidently brought the craft down very suddenly. Deccan Herald reported that the craft took an . If so, the inquiry must discover why.
Indeed, all possibilities, including sabotage (all it would take is to loosen a few nuts and bolts), must be carefully probed. At least the top brass and the government must know what really happened.
Naravane could be CDS
The government must act swiftly to give the forces suitable leadership. The CDS also heads the department of military affairs in the defence ministry. on Wednesday evening that the government would appoint a new CDS in the next seven to 10 days. Considering the range of security threats the country faces, the decision should be far more prompt.
If the government goes by seniority, Gen MM Naravane, the chief of army staff, could be appointed the Chief of Defence Staff. He is far the senior most of the three service chiefs, and all other serving officers.
Naravane has proved competent as chief. Understated but resolute, he has won the respect of his force in the almost two years he has held the army’s top job. It has been a tough time, for China invaded Ladakh just a couple of months after he took over.
The army was caught unprepared, but performed admirably at the battle of Galwan and in capturing the Kailash heights. Naravane has earned his spurs, even though the forces have been given inadequate armaments.
If he is appointed, Naravane’s reticence would be a contrast to Rawat’s flair for speaking his mind. An assertive man, Rawat sometimes spoke at length when asked a question.
On the other hand, as saying that the process to set up the theatre commands needed to be “deliberate, thoughtful and well-considered, and its fruition will take a number of years”.
The government has mandated that “jointness” be accomplished within three years of the appointment of the first CDS (the end of 2022). Gen Rawat was pushing for theatre commands in which units of the air force would function under the overall command of the army commander of that geographical theatre.
The air force has been reluctant. Contemporary fighter planes can move from one geographical theatre to another, or deep into enemy territory, within minutes.
The navy and the air force would be right to expect that the next CDS should be from either of those forces. But, being far senior to all other contenders, Naravane seems a logical choice in the emergency caused by the unexpected crash.
Line of succession
If indeed Gen Naravane is appointed as CDS, either Lt Gen CP Mohanty, the current vice-chief, or Lt Gen YK Joshi, the northern army commander, would most likely become the army chief. They are batch-mates and equally senior, for they became army commanders just a couple of days apart early last year.
Both have had distinguished careers. Joshi, a hero of the Kargil war, has spent almost two years in command of the area China invaded quite soon after he took command. He was the corps commander in Leh just before that. Mohanty, an equally accomplished officer, has served as the southern army commander as well as vice-chief at headquarters.
Both Mohanty and Joshi are due to retire at the end of January but if either becomes chief, he would get another two years in office. If Gen Naravane does not become CDS, both would retire before he does in April.
There has been much speculation in the army about whether Lt Gen Manoj Pande, who currently heads the eastern command, or Lt Gen Jai Nain, who heads the southern command, would succeed Naravane in April. The speculation was basically over whether the government would appoint an engineer (Lt Gen Pande) or prefer Nain, who is an infantry man.
Gen Rawat was appointed army chief five years ago on the argument that he was an infantry man with wide experience of handling counter-insurgency.
The government seemed to be saying that counter-insurgency was more important than preparing for the possibility of an outright war. Ironically, it took that line when serious foreign threats were in the offing. China moved forward in Doka La just a few months later, has consolidated in that area since, and crossed the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh last year.
In July-August this year, the US as good as handed Afghanistan to Pakistan, allowing China to gain a major foothold there. Both “iron brothers” have thus consolidated their hold over large parts of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Gen Rawat had the great advantage of being in sync with national security advisor Ajit Doval. The two got on very well, and supported the government’s political objectives – for example with regard to constitutional changes in Jammu and Kashmir.
Many army officers held in very high regard the two officers who were superseded when Gen Rawat was appointed. However, neither might have been in sync with the government’s objectives to the same extent as Gen Rawat was.
The good thing is that the supersession did not divide the army down the middle, the way the controversy over the succession of Admiral Jain or Admiral Ramdas had riven the navy, right through the 1990s and beyond. The Hindu published a to Gen Rawat from Lt Gen AK Bhatt, who worked closely with Rawat as DGMO, corps commander in Kashmir, and as his military secretary.
The army has remained cohesive and firmly focused, not least because a large majority of officers appear to hold the current government in high regard and believe that it has strengthened India’s security.
The government must act swiftly and wisely now to confirm that impression in this hour of crisis.