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(First published on January 4th, 2020)

India has a new army chief. Well, sort of. Are you an army chief if your predecessor is still in uniform, sitting above you, waiting to usurp your powers in an unfixed, rapidly mutating political environment? If you look closely, it is a clever scheme. Create uncertainty through division. Divide and rule. And while it is true that General MM Naravane heads the army organogram, his predecessor General Bipin Rawat ascends to a newly minted tri-service leadership position. The terms of reference of the newly created post of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) are interesting. They are supposed to be. Ajit Doval wrote them. If truth be told it is a clever spin on the old position at the top of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. Some additional powers have been thrown into the mix by renaming the Department of Defence within the Ministry of Defence as the Department of Military Affairs and making the CDS the head of the department. But that is not the clever part. It is the standard run of the mill game of reorganising bureaucracy and calling it something new. Sir Humphrey Appleby be praised.

The clever bit is this. On March 16 this year, General Rawat reaches the age of superannuation. So, he would have to retire by then. Hence the by-laws were amended to offer the new CDS relaxation till the age of 65. With me so far? So, he can stay in this office for slightly over three years and three months, right? Well, he can. Doesn’t mean he will. Why? Because the author of the appointment letter forgot to mention his term in office. He serves until further notice. So, you get a temporary reprieve for now but one toe out of line, buddy boy, and you have had it. After rank flattery, helping Modi win election by turning his force into a vehicle of election campaigning, abandoning the families and relatives of his service members from minority communities and throwing the Indian secular Constitution into the bin, the general who was elevated to the position of chief of army staff by abandoning the well-established seniority principle still remains a puppet on a single string. Ready to be cut loose at the most minor display of infraction. And the presence of this puppet is enough to keep the three services chiefs, especially the COAS, permanently insecure, on their toes, occasionally even on their knees.

Consequently, General Naravane, a gallant Maratha, has been on message since the assumption of his office. And that is to be expected. He was appointed the vice chief of army staff in August 2019. Ostensibly to ensure he gets his dose of Pavlovian conditioning. Hence his narrative is picture-perfect for the saffron regime. Some cognitive dissonance about the Constitution: Modi’s government might have totally and illegally bulldozed the Constitution to get rid of articles 35-A and 370 and annexe Kashmir but he sees the Indian army always loyal to the Constitution and yet seeing the annexation as a positive step. Claiming to be apolitical while bolstering a divisive, petty and vindictive government’s deeply partisan narrative as god’s truth. And the practical exhibition of this dim-witted and simplistic belief is that if you keep berating and threatening Pakistan, everyone’s favourite whipping boy, all your domestic woes, borne out of bad governance and malice, will go away.

But here a serious question arises: why come up with such an elaborate plot to diffuse military power in a country where the army has never posed a threat to the civilian supremacy? This absence of a threat is not just because of the goodness of a soldier’s heart. It’s not practical. India might have a huge fighting force, but a vast territory too. And despite some recent stabs at modernising the armed forces, the nature of operational readiness and scattered formations makes it near impossible to overthrow a civilian government. Then why devise such an elaborate scheme?

There are two answers. Both ominous. First, Hitler-like territorial ambitions. That soon some impossible demands might be made of the three services chiefs. Colonise this country or that. Or resign and go home. Of course, India uses Pakistan as the resident bogeyman and various RSS leaders talk of the latter becoming part of the former by 2025. But that is not where it will start. Pakistan is a nuclear country with a battle-hardened standing army. It will start with one of the low hanging fruits. Some disturbance in Bhutan or instability in Nepal. Or easiest of all, a massive permanent deployment in Afghanistan if the US leaves without a deal. This permanent force can then reduce the government in Kabul to a client regime. Kautilya’s rice bowl stratagem. Start with the cooler parts, use them to demoralise the enemy and then go for the jugular. And professional soldiers may resist such instructions on the off chance they know the history and fate of the Nazi empire.

The other answer is even sadder. That Modi’s junta has given birth to schizophrenia at the heart of India. What do you do when your base code reads “follow the Constitution” and your government makes its various virtues as competing values? The Constitution says that a democratically elected civilian government ought to be respected. But the very same Constitution also instructs to keep the polity secular and for a good reason. You know that with so many fault-lines if India abandons its secular character it may lose its structural integrity quickly. But if you try to confront the elected government, it may not just compromise democracy but also weaken if not collapse the administrative structure. Two great virtues of Indian democracy; both armed by the Modi regime and brought in conflict. The Indian apex court could have easily sorted out this mess. But that building is empty. There is nobody there. Courage fled ages ago.

Since Modi, his party, his government and their puppeteers in the RSS are products of malice, hate and paranoia, they are instinctively incapable of trusting anybody. When such an insecure and malevolent bunch rules a country, the destruction of all major institutions is to be expected. The fear is that caught in the middle of this insecurity, unrealistic ambition and destruction of the old agreed-upon normal the Indian national security apparatus will start malfunctioning.

But here is a word to the wise. This does not need to be this way. Democracy has its own way of reasserting. No power can treat near 200 million citizens of a country like Hitler treated the Jews in Germany. A deluge is coming to right the wrongs. A secular, tricolour deluge. In fact, it has already begun. Keep the external defences as high as you want. But keep out of its way.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 4th, 2020.

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