India’s first Chief of Defence Staff Bipin Rawat perished in a helicopter crash along with 12 others a few days ago. I have already publicly offered my condolences. His sudden departure has given birth to a host of questions, some about the future of his newly minted offices, some about the overall direction of the country’s defence policy. But for now, the South Asian media is obsessed with something that it has no qualification, capacity, or knowledge to assess — about the crash.
The Russian-made MI-17 V5 might be a widely used reliable workhorse with advanced avionics on board, but it is a chopper nevertheless prone to the same vulnerabilities as any other. Just go to its Wikipedia page and read the section titled “accidents and notable incidents”. You will find a long list of crashes since 2000 and since 2008 often more than once each year. A tri-service inquiry has been ordered by the government. An overkill, in my humble view. Why? Well, let’s see how the Indian Navy’s expertise proves useful in probing Tamil Nadu’s topography. But even with such a high powered announcement, the drip drip drip of speculations, insinuations and conspiracy theories has continued. Sadly under Modi, the Indian mainstream media has become a one-trick pony and so divorced from facts that it cannot help it. That’s why I have argued for long that instead of betting on the prophets of ignorance if you invest time and energy in fair-minded professionals you may find them being fair to you as well. But then the late general liked this kind of ‘journalism’.
In fact in one such talk shows Brahma Chellaney, an otherwise sane analyst, first drew a parallel between this crash and the one that killed Taiwan’s Chief of General Staff Shen Yi Ming in January 2020 and then blurted out that he did not mean there was a link. One wonders what else he could have meant. This from an academic who is trained to deal with facts. But despite his insinuations, there is hardly any comparison between the two incidents. Gen Yi-ming was travelling on a Black Hawk, investigations revealed weather-related oversight, and senior officials were sacked as a consequence. Gen Rawat was travelling on a Mi-17 V5 and the above-mentioned open-source Wikipedia article will tell you of 50 such accidents in the past two decades.
But I agree with one sentiment. General Rawat did not need to be on this flight. Had the incumbent Indian government adhered to the established norms and merit system in the matters of military promotions he would never have become the army chief. Before his elevation, the seniority principle was a well-established tradition in such appointments. Rawat was not the senior most official. Likewise, the office that was invented to keep him in uniform (and some improvised uniform it was) would not have existed had he not become a willing pawn in Doval’s game to undermine the very institution that made him. Ergo, no need for this travel.
Please, do not take these accusations lightly. I am aware that he was a sword of honour recipient at the military academy, son of a general, and a decorated soldier. But that is precisely why his ambitions and subsequent betrayal are so bizarre and inexplicable. These days you hear a lot about his efforts for jointness and theaterisation but the fact is that he politicised these concepts too by waiting for the end of his COAS term to get elevated to this post and not letting someone else take this position. In 2019 he helped the incumbents return to power through the Balakot PR blitz. Once they carried the election he was rewarded for his complacency with the ToRs for the new office tailor-made for him. Do you think I am exaggerating? Well, in the Indian army the age of superannuation for a four-star general is 62 or the end of a three-year term. For him, the age for the CDS office was extended to 65 because he waited for the date of his retirement, and of course, the aftermath of elections, to get elevated to the new office. His new office was used to compel the three service chiefs to get with the Hindutva programme. To do this he was also made the Principal Military Advisor to the Defence Minister, the Secretary heading the Department of Military Affairs, and the Military Advisor to the Nuclear Command Authority. The Department of Military Affairs deserves your attention. It was another office created just for him. By virtue of being the secretary he controlled the purse strings of the three services ensuring their complacency. I can understand extensions in a country like Pakistan where less than fifteen years ago there was a president in uniform. But in India where pundits never stop bragging about civilian supremacy, I do not get this.
But the real betrayal was his role in perpetuating a political order that constantly undermined the secular character of his forces. The RSS had unfettered access to military units under his command. That is not all. I cannot begin to imagine what the Muslim, Sikh, and Christian service members must have felt when they saw their relatives, a few even Indian war veterans no less, being told in Assam that they were not Indian citizens or the broad day murder of Muslims in the federal capital or protesting farmers being called Khalistani. There is no doubt in my mind that had it not been for these two gents — Rawat and Doval — Modi could not win in 2019. Take a bow.
Through his machinations in Myanmar, across LoC especially during the Balakot episode and later on the China India border he showed he would do anything to stay in the limelight. People close to him claimed he had a secret plan to eventually make peace with Pakistan. If true he was too late and took those plans to the grave.
I would have called him the first political general but that notorious title goes to another vindictive predecessor of his, one General VK Singh, who colluded with the BJP and became a junior minister just because he could not get his desired corner plot upon retirement.
While the Indian media will tell you that his replacement will soon be announced, I don’t think there is any enthusiasm in any of the three services for the job. The old dictum — if it ain’t broke don’t fix it — sounds true here. What his office was trying to accelerate was an evolutionary process spanning decades. And as it turns out not even for the right reasons. Upon reaching the end of his tenure he would either have continued as the Secretary of the Department of Military Affairs to manufacture consent or been elevated to Rajnath’s job. In any case, members of Modi’s security team do not retire, they die. Consider Arun Jaitley, Manohar Parrikar and Sushma Swaraj. The fact is had it not for his ambitions and betrayals, Gen Rawat would have been alive today, enjoying the perks of retirement. And perhaps the service that made him would have been less overstretched or distressed.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 11th, 2021.