Army chief General Bipin Rawat’s latest verbal assault on liberal sensibilities—in the form of adverse observations about those leading the counter-Citizenship Amendment Act agitations—has been widely criticised. The media has reported that the general’s remarks were aimed at student protesters and political leaders who, in his view, are spearheading agitations against the CAA and the all-India National Register of Citizens (NRC) across the country. Rawat’s basic postulate is that violence is an inappropriate direction to lead followers into.
Since this is not the general’s first foray into politics, it is worth asking where he gets his gumption from. Clearly, he has a sense of impunity that can only be a result of being hand-in-glove with his civilian masters. This is borne out by how he always takes care to speak in favour of the political establishment. Be it his earlier interventions on Kashmir or, famously, his take on a certain political party in Assam. Whether General Rawat works of his own volition or is His Master’s Voice is moot, but both possibilities are calamitous. The first instance amounts to military meddling in politics and the second reeks of politicisation of the military.
At present, General Rawat may also have a more pressing personal reason to speak the way he did. He may be reminding those in power that he is still around, ready and willing to take over as the first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). If the government signs off on the appointment of the first CDS in the next four days, it would be before Rawat retires on 31 December 2019. The shortlist of potential CDS’s is being shepherded through the bureaucracy by his ethnic kin, the national security adviser Ajit Doval.
There is an alternative, simpler, explanation for Rawat shooting off his mouth on the anti-CAA protests: that he is simply habituated to foot-in-mouth. At this juncture, this proclivity could well help him land an alternative sinecure in case he misses the CDS boat. His predecessor managed an ambassadorship to Seychelles, a post that would otherwise have been tenanted by a joint secretary-level diplomat. Rawat has been ingratiating himself before the regime with parochial statements for at least three years, while he held various critical Army posts. That, presumably, makes him suitable for a sinecure in a larger, even if diplomatically rather inconsequential, country than his predecessor.
To be sure, an empathetic explanation for the general’s behaviour may also exist. It could be that he has been ordered to make statements, and disciplined soldier that he is, is discharging his obligation to obey his civilian masters. The front-line internal security force, the para-military, is stuck in Kashmir. The armed police are drawing flak for being blatantly communal. The military, too, hit the streets in flag marches in the North-east. Since internal security is part of the military’s remit as its secondary responsibility, he has a duty to preempt a worsening situation.
If the situation in the country deteriorates further, and there is no guarantee it will not in light of the stakes of the ruling party in West Bengal, where elections are due next year, then the Army may, willy-nilly, get sucked in. An early indicator of this apprehension was a statement by the Eastern Army Commander [General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Eastern Command Lieutenant General Anil Chauhan] extolling the CAA as yet another instance of hard-nosed decision-making by the current political regime. “The current government is keen on taking hard decisions that have been pending for a long time," he said on 15 December at a conference in Kolkata, where his headquarters are. Kolkata would be the firefighting hub in case West Bengal goes down the agitation path.
India has been very sensitive to the security situation in West Bengal. Interventions, initially by the intelligence and military in a proxy war, and then by the military in an ostensibly humanitarian intervention in East Bengal, were triggered, among other factors, by the fear that an unsettled Bengal can exploited by Maoists, who were rather active back in the day. Even today, Maoists are close at hand in the jungles, having gotten as close as Junglemahal in the early part of this decade. Besides, jihadi penetration is possible in agitations that involve Muslims. The image this can conjure up in the security establishment is of a proverbial perfect storm: a jihadi-Maoist combine.
Therefore, preemptively discrediting the agitations before they can intensify and spread may have been considered necessary. This is a possible rationale for the Army chief having his say. WhatsApp University has already put out its latest “research” that illegal Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants have trooped up to Lucknow in a clandestine fashion, where they are responsible for the mayhem that prompted Ajay Mohan Bisht, aka Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, to take tough action.
Admittedly, this last argument stretches the security rationale to some degree, but without such a sympathetic explanation the Army chief’s decision to comment on the counter-CAA agitations are completely implausible. No wonder general Rawat’s latest utterances have drawn swift umbrage from several members of the Old Guard, represented by people such as Admiral Laxminarayan Ramdas (retd).
In the final analysis, the only plausible implication of General Rawat’s remarks is that he was motivated by more mundane concerns. He is playing his old game of political partisanship, in which the first salvo was fired by the general in Kolkata, who is a regimental mate of the Army chief. When he was the military operations head, he was allowed to shoot off his mouth earlier too, when he intervened at election time to support the ruling party’s case that there were no surgical strikes before the post-Uri terror attack. This bit of partisanship, in effect, bust the Congress party’s claim that it had conducted six such strikes when it was leading the United Progressive Alliance governments for two terms.
The controversy then involved the Northern Army Commander, who sought to discredit his predecessor at Udhampur, retired general DS Hooda. Since Hooda had written up the Congress party’s security doctrine for its manifesto, it was considered necessary that he be taken down. The Northern Army Commander dutifully, and no doubt under orders from his chief, stepped up to the plate to do exactly that.
These events show up three generals, the Army chief and two Army commanders, for making political interventions in favour of the ruling party. The Army chief is a front-runner for the CDS’ post. The Northern Army Commander was earlier in the lineup for the post of Army Chief, but he has been outpointed by the front-runner, Lt Gen MM Naravane.
Since the CDS post can include deep selection from among the senior three-star brass from all three services, the Northern Army Commander has his hat in the ring. Perhaps the Eastern Army Commander also fancies his chances, since the post has been sanctioned but no incumbent has been named so far.
All this is of a piece with the manner in which this regime rolls out its decisions. Recall the long queues of citizens after demonetisation, the chaos after the Goods and Services Tax was implemented, the lock-down in Kashmir after its demotion to a territory administered by Delhi, and the CAA-NRC. Note also that no evidence was supplied of success at Balakot. Similarly, there was no evidence provided that an F-16 was downed after the Pakistani counter to Balakot. Instead, there were two Indian aircraft wreckage—a Mig 21 and a helicopter. Given this record of tripping up, it cannot but be expected to slip up on how it handles the CDS roll-out.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi took the stage at the Red Fort to announce the position of a CDS. Since the parameters were not quite drawn up by then, the homework began after the announcement. This enabled the top brass of the military to get into a competition and show off their respective competences for the job. The now-retired Air Chief was an early bird in this game, who unnecessarily, during election time, tried to draw attention away from the procedural short-cuts taken by the regime in the Rafale jet purchase. He knew all too well that the controversy had nothing to do with the efficacy of the Rafale but the tricky conduits of campaign funding.
Only the silent service, the Indian Navy, has stayed away, perhaps aware that the odds are stacked against an admiral landing as the first CDS incumbent. This only serves to prove that the other contenders had the post in their sights.
These unseemly advertisements by military men, of their amenability to the regime’s political and ideological position, is a fallout of the unnecessarily hasty announcement at Red Fort. The decision could well have waited for another grandstanding opportunity for the PM, perhaps until Republic Day 2020. The home work for the post, the decision that the CDS will head a department of military affairs in the defence ministry, has only now been wrapped up.
The roll-out of the CDS has debased the uniform and its credibility, thus giving it an inauspicious launch. If any of the front-runners are appointed at he post, each can be seen as a compromised choice—but especially if it is General Rawat. It is best that his latest political intervention be taken as his Swan song, lest the nation is made to suffer another three years of his addiction to partisanship.
The author is visiting professor at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia. The views are personal.