Sunday, December 25, 2016
COAS selection and the doctrine of ‘relative ease of working’ with
In wake of the selection of the next army chief, the notion that an abundance of operational experience is an indicator of strategic good sense has been debunked competently elsewhere. Some have argued that seniority is also not the best guarantee of enabling the best hand at the military helm. One argument that has been bandied about in favour of the double supersession, that of ‘relative ease of working’ with.
This has surfaced in two prominent publications, no doubt discreetly put out by the information warfare machinery at the ruling party’s command, both governmental and through its army of trolls. The underlying assumption is quite akin to selling demonetization, which in Amit Shah’s words needs being repeated a hundred times to become the logical thing to do to tackle black money, corruption, terrorism and to make India a cashless economy. Before it becomes a doctrine that will inform subsequent selections, it needs debunking.
A retired major general writes in The Wire:
A decision is more likely to be based on the ‘relative ease of working’ rather than just seniority. Relative ease implies certain qualities which are essential at that level, especially when, for example, the government is following a pro-active policy against India’s immediate neighbours… In simple terms, it is mutual understanding and commonality on thought and operational issues.
Josy Joseph writing for the once-credible The Hindu, lets on that, ‘Those close to the present government also argue that a factor taken into consideration was the ease of doing business with the new chief.’ He suggests that sources in-the-know have given out why the Modi government has gone in for its latest Tughlakian maneuver. This might just be the real reason why the army chief designate made it past two equally competent generals.
A long-time military and intelligence watcher Saikat Dutta, writing for the scroll.in, informs that the army chief designate caught the eye of the national security adviser at a previous interaction between the two during the planning and conduct of the supposedly trans-border operation in Myanmar against Naga rebels who had ambushed an army convoy. As the former army man, the information minister, had indicated then, it was the precursor to the more touted ‘surgical strikes’ of late.
Dutta writes: ‘Discussions at Army headquarters during the planning of this operation saw a close interaction between Rawat and Doval. Though the two men are years apart in age, the fact that both are Garhwalis helped them cement a working relationship.’ In hindsight, it can be said that this led up to Bipin Rawat’s move to South Block as Vice Chief and his subsequent elevation over the heads of his former boss at Eastern Command and his successor at Southern Command.
It appears that this is the most likely reason for the supersession and therefore calls out for like scrutiny by commentators as attended the other plausible reason touted, namely, operational experience.
At the outset it bears mention that it was not Bipin Rawat who invited the national security adviser over to his operational area. Mr. Doval accompanied the Army Chief who landed up there to oversee a tactical level operation that perhaps directly involved at best two companies that could have well be overseen by a brigadier. More accurately put, it would be vice versa, with the army chief accompanying the super sleuth. Observers, noticing his omni-presence, had pointed to such hyper-activity not translating into strategic acumen. At the operational briefing, and perhaps when the operations were underway, there is no reason for Bipin Rawat to exercise self-censorship when sharing his views with Mr. Doval. That Mr. Doval found these palatable is now apparent.
The point that ‘sources’ in government and/or from the cultural nationalist front have put out is that the government required a chief who was amenable to its strategic shift, from strategic restraint to strategic proactivism. This they have now managed to get. What are the implications?
There is potential for politicization. An aspiring general can read the tea leaves. He can align his world view with that of the government. He can project himself as being ‘easy’ to work with. This obviously is not the case with Bipin Rawat, but those who follow would be keyed into this new-fangled principle of selection of apex military brass.
The famous case of BM Kaul, an officer of the service corps, being placed in charge to implement Nehru’s forward policy is rather well known. The officer who was against this policy, General Thorat, was shunted out. The supersession of General Sinha has a similar story attending it. He was reluctant to get the army involved cleaning up the Sikh unrest. His successor at Western Command, Sundarji, and the general who pipped him at the post, General Vaidya, were more willing to align with the government. A different angle to aligning with the government’s views or otherwise is from the episode in April 1971 when the army was asked to go into East Pakistan. General Manekshaw rightly demurred and gained control over the timing of the invasion. The results of the three examples are rather well known.
There is also one on potential possibilities. Take for instance the briefing by the then military operations and air operations heads to the BJP national executive at its party headquarters during the Kargil War. They were possibly corralled into it by the defence minister, a party ally of the BJP. Imagine a scenario in which General Vij, the then DGMO, declining the duty in light of its political repercussions. He would unlikely have made it to chief in his turn. On the other hand, his turning up for the briefing makes him out as pliable. That he succeeded Doval as head of the think tank, the Vivekananda International Foundation, suggests a likemindedness that well preceded his retirement.
The doctrine of ‘ease of doing business with’ therefore fraught. In the current case, the government wishes to have at the helm someone it believes shares its strategic orientation. This has the underside of giving rise to group think. The expectation of the army is that it would willingly say ‘Yes Sir’ on receiving its marching orders; that the army will be less process driven in terms of providing its input and feedback on the directions it receives. The ‘ease of doing business with’ formulation suggests a like-mindedness that is detrimental to national security decision making in that it deprives the government of unpalatable alternatives and diversity in options.
This is the practical manifestation of what in theory passes for subjective civilian control in which the government appoints a military brass that shares its views, rather than for professionalism that will enable it to receive a corporate view from the military that might be at variance with its own view or clash with the other inputs it receives such as from the foreign policy bureaucracy or intelligence agencies. Subjective civilian control was to the originator of the concept of military professionalism, Samuel Huntington, abusive of professionalism. It compromises the advisory role an apex military leader is to perform.
An example of the ‘ease of doing business with’, albeit one somewhat stretched, is from the last time round India wished to show its muscles. In the mid-eighties, Rajiv Gandhi and his whiz kids, that included Arjun Singh, were inclined to take India to a regional power status. This included moving from a brown water to blue water navy, upgrading its air force with the latest planes such as Jaguars, and allowing the army the run of the deserts to instill fear into Zia’s Pakistan. They had a visionary general in command who likewise liked painting on a wider canvas. By Rajiv Gandhi’s own admission, Exercise Brasstacks that Sundarji organized, took Indian an untimely a whisker away from war. Sundarji, tamed by the experience, was thereafter willing to fall in line with India’s viceroy in Colombo, JN Dixit, and the R&AW line that the Tamil Tigers were ‘our boys’.
The upshot is that there is no place for individual heroes in the national security pantheon. Neither Mr. Doval’s by now rather well-known intelligence exploits nor General Rawat’s operational experience can serve to substitute for robust institutional strength. This can only be obtained from institutions in national security performing as constitutionally and traditionally mandated. It cannot be through a measure of placing seemingly likeminded individuals at the helm.
In fact, the demonetization debacle suggests India direly needs leaders who can stand their ground. In the military sphere this is even more so since they have nuclear weapons and strike corps in their custody that the Modi-Doval duo may like to employ to embellish their 56 inch image, not necessarily the best and right use of these national assets.
The deep selection of heads was done earlier with the foreign service bureaucracy and now with the army. In both cases, the credibility of the individuals in question is not in question. Indeed, that India’s foreign policy is in doldrums owes perhaps to a pushback of the foreign policy bureaucracy led by redoubtable S. Jaishankar, to dictation from the national security bureaucracy. Bipin Rawat is by that yardstick equally credible as a military leader. His test is how he does not allow his supposed buy-in to a ‘nationalist’ world view – or so spin doctors are rationalizing his elevation - get in way of his professionally arrived at input in and follow through with decisions involving Indian use of force.