General Bipin Rawat's legacy and modernization of Indian armed forces
India’s military reforms may now face a situation where the strongman has gone and the hunt for the able successor is afoot, the government should be announcing its successor soon and certainly, there is a huge talent pool to draw from. Hopefully, his demise will only urge his successor to ensure his vision is realised without losing time
The sudden demise of India's first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat has created an unforeseen situation, however, the government is inching close to identifying the next CDS. According to Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, the process to identify the next Chief of Defence Staff has been set in motion, but he was evasive on the timeline.
Army Chief General MM Naravane has taken over some of the responsibilities of the CDS as Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC). The Committee, which includes the Chiefs of the Army, Navy and the Air Force, is the main body to decide military issues. When the post of CDS was created with General Rawat taking charge on January 1, 2020, the CDS was appointed as the permanent Head of the Committee, the first among equals - the four-star Chiefs. After his death, General Naravane has taken over the role as he is the most senior among the serving Chiefs.
His seniority, Ministry of Defence (MoD) sources said, has also made him the natural choice for CDS which the government is yet to decide. Not only is he the most senior military officer in the country, but several people in the defence establishment are also of the view that the CDS should be from the Army, at least till the theatre command process is completed.
Highly placed sources also revealed that the announcement of a new incumbent might take time as the government is keen to review the defence reforms initiated two years ago with the appointment of Chief of Defence Staff. Gen Rawat was donning several heavy-duty hats as the first CDS. He was also made Secretary of the newly created Department of Military Affairs (DMA) and Principal Military Advisor to the Defence Minister apart from the permanent Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee. The government has put too many eggs in one basket and now wants to review the structure to lessen the over-burdened tasks of the CDS. Above all, he had heavy responsibilities as the CDS, looking into major decisions such as prioritisation of capital purchases by the armed forces, planning for indigenisation and was in charge of all postings and promotions of senior officers.
Rawat's lasting legacy
The armed forces are currently traversing an arduous path with the objective being higher defence reforms leading to jointness and integration of all three services. Gen Rawat had been keen on the progress of the formation of theaterisation as per timelines. Such a huge change in the military's higher defence structure requires transformational leaders at the helm, with both professional and intellectual competence. Such leaders have to drive the pace without missing out on the details. Gen Rawat had faith in himself and his colleagues to progress the transition.
Gen Rawat superseded two of his seniors when the government chose him for the position. Serving as the Army Chief for three years, he was known to be very assertive, taking on Pakistan and China on several occasions through tough posturing. He had strongly made a case for additional funds for the Army in 2018, pointing to the threats posed by an ever-assertive China.
Under the growing nationalist atmosphere in India, Rawat's remarks were well received by the Indian people. Rawat carried India's dream of a strong military as a major power. Rawat also declared that "India's number one enemy is China, not Pakistan".
He was greatly appreciated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his stance on the Chinese hawks, and he was repeatedly promoted to the top posts. Modi called Rawat an "outstanding soldier" and a "true patriot", praising him for making great contributions to the modernization of the Indian armed forces, having extraordinary insights into strategic issues.
Reforming the armed forces
Towards the end of 2019, to further promote the modernization of the armed forces, enhance the coordinated combat capabilities amongst the three services, and push through the integration of all three services, the Modi government began to implement military reforms. One of the most important steps was to improve the top-level architecture of armed forces by establishing the post of Chief of Defense Staff. This post was mandated and responsible for integrating the Indian armed forces into the government system so that they can fully participate in decision-making while promoting joint operations between military theatre commands. Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose Gen Bipin Rawat, the then Chief of Staff of the Army, as India's first Chief of Defense Staff. Since taking office as CDS, he has taken an extremely tough stance against China and Pakistan. After the Sino-Indian border conflict occurred in the Galwan Valley in eastern Ladakh, he has repeatedly made provocative remarks and threatened that "the Indian armed forces have sufficient strength and reserves to deal with any threats and are seeking to arm themselves with more cutting-edge technologies."
The core of Rawat's military reform was to shift the military focus from the western border with Pakistan to the northern border with China. It advocated establishing partnerships with neighbouring countries to jointly contain China and gain advanced military support from the United States, Japan and Australia with a high-profile anti-China approach.
His noble background, prominent combat exploits, and solid experience in the grassroots forces have made Rawat an irreplaceable power engine for India's military reform. Since taking office, many milestone reforms have been implemented in the Indian army, such as indigenization of weapon inventory, modernization of the armed forces, integrated operations, artillery revolution and pursuing the need to enhance capabilities in domains of warfare now assuming greater importance like the Cyber, AI, Network Centricity, Information Space etc.
Though some of the changes he brought in were not well received by sections of veterans and serving officers, Gen Rawat continued with the task of bringing in reforms from cutting down officer privileges to changes in the procurement process.
Despite the important mission of promoting military reforms, Rawat, as the CDS, couldn't succeed in substantial progress in India's military reforms. Instead, it has caused many negative effects on India's internal affairs and diplomacy. On the one hand, Gen Rawat proposed to reduce subsidies for young veterans, ignoring the importance of the navy and air force, which caused dissatisfaction within the military. On 2nd July 2021, Rawat stated that the Indian Air Force was only a "support force" and was responsible for supporting army operations. This caused dissatisfaction and dissension among Air Force and further aggravated the contradictions caused by the division of the Indian Army's integrated theatre commands.
However, he was spearheading the defence reforms with military zeal and bulldozing the tasks at his hands. India's military reform may now face a situation where the strongman has gone and the hunt for the able successor is afoot, the government should be announcing its successor soon and certainly, there is a huge talent pool to draw from. Hopefully, his demise will only urge his successor to ensure his vision is realised without losing time.
(Author is a journalist who writes on defence, strategic affairs, security and conflict)