With the Bihar elections hogging all the attention in the news, an interesting development noted by military watchers is liable to be missed. A former military secretary informs that an unprecedented number of army appointments are currently vacant, including two very sensitive posts - Director General Military Operations, and Military Secretary.

What does this imply?

A positive answer to this could be that the government may be looking to create the appointment of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) or permanent Chairman of the Chiefs’ of Staff Committee (COSC), as the case may be. This could entail a wider reshuffle and this may be holding up the filling in of vacancies.

The appointment of the CDS has been a constant recommendation of many committees deliberating higher defence reform, dating back to Arun Singh’s first foray into this in the early 1990s. His subsequent submission to Subrahmanyam’s Kargil Review Committee was similar. The recommendation was accepted then by the committee of ministers empowered to work the recommendations of the Kargil report. The appointment has however remained on hold ever since.

The latest review, the Naresh Chandra Committee, likewise pitched for a first-among-equals in the form of a CDS equivalent, permanent Chairman of the COSC. This patently has many benefits including furthering jointmanship, provision of integrated advice to the Cabinet Committee on Security and the National Security Council, and for overseeing India’s nuclear assets and operations.

In addition to the joint commands, Andaman and Nicobar Command and the Strategic Forces Command, and the HQs Integrated Defence Staff, there are a host of joint commands in the offing that would require single-point oversight: special operations command, cyber and space commands etc.

This government is reportedly mulling the creation of a CDS. Implementing this may require elevating one of the chiefs or deeper selection. If from the army, then this opens up the possibility of a wider shake up. The possibility of this puts a positive spin on the deliberateness seemingly accompanying the current holdup.

However, if this was the plausible reason there would likely have been a corroborating media report or leak to this effect. The converse is also possible that such news would have attracted the usual fight back by political parties not interested in the military acquiring such salience, and by the bureaucracy that has been dead set against such a move. This might explain why the move, if impending, is under wraps.

This column has consistently pointed to the risk of politicization of the military under an ideological regime. It is not in the form as usually assumed and well studied, of a politicized military out to seize power spurred by its institutional interests. Instead, it is the reverse, a neutralization of the military as a politically significant actor so that the ideological agenda of the regime is furthered without checks and balances.

The pre-WWII German government, for example, neutered the General Staff of the military as part of their totalitarian scheme. The tactics included implicating one leading general for marrying a prostitute and another for homosexuality.

Military musical chairs by political leaders is not new In India, either. One reference is from the 1970s - to the passing over of Lt Gen Bhagat, a Victoria Cross winner and general with a formidable military reputation, by giving General Bewoor another year as Chief. This led to Bhagat, the next in line for the appointment, retiring and paving the way for Mrs. Gandhi anointing General Raina to succeed Bewoor. As is well known, the Emergency soon followed.

The better known case is that of Pandit Nehru sidelining the popular Chief, ‘Timmy’ Thimayya, with a public put-downer in parliament. He had earlier required Thimayya to withdraw his resignation and let him down while favouring his defence minister, Krishna Menon. The outcome of that error was quickly evident in the result of the 1962 War. 

It is well recognized that the appointment of the Chief is a political one, not only procedurally so with the Appointments Committee clearing it, but also substantively. While the senior most in line between the vice chiefs and the army commanders is usually made the Chief designate, allegations of the proverbial ‘line of succession’ being manipulated have often attended such successions, particularly in the more recent past.

The most infamous one was brought to fore by General V K Singh’s insinuations that  General J J Singh, the first Chief of Sikh faith, worked the succession line up to favour the chances of V K Singh’s successor, Bikram Singh, another Sikh, to take over. That VK Singh employed considerable energy and invested his reputation to undo this was evident from his ‘date of birth’ controversy.

V K Singh however hit himself in the foot when it emerged that his attempt at deflecting Bikram Singh from his destiny, may have been to ensure that Bikram Singh’s successor was not the current Chief Gen Dalbir Singh, but another general, Lt Gen Ashok Singh, who is the father-in-law of his daughter! Ashok Singh had organized the troop movement in the vicinity of Delhi when V K Singh’s court hearing had come up in January 2012.

What this look-back suggests is that higher echelon appointments have a political angle. However, since the professionalism of the various candidates is seldom in doubt, this has not been very controversial thus far. So why should it be different this time round?

Firstly, this government, unlike previous governments, has not stopped after reshuffling gubernatorial appointments in its first foray into an ideological takeover of institutions. It has moved into education and culture. This suggests the military cannot expect to remain unscathed; some anticipatory concern is warranted.

Secondly, the Director General Military Operations (DGMO) and Military Secretary (MS) posts are critical for keeping a check on and control of the military. The criticality of the DGMO post is obvious from V K Singh’s moving of military formations in the vicinity of New Delhi, without the then DGMO being in the loop.

Historically, troop movements in Delhi’s environs have been sensitive. The first scare of a military coup was raised when troops were moved to Delhi for Shastri’s funeral. The military had apparently made the arrangement in anticipation, knowing from the experience with handling Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral that more numbers would be needed. That the government is well aware of the criticality of the appointment is in its sudden diversion of the corps commander in Srinagar, who had already moved to take over the coveted DGMO post.

The MS post is even more critical from an ideological regime’s point of view. The MS is in charge of promotions and postings of the officer corps. The apprehension is that the ongoing saffronisation of India will engulf the military leadership eventually. Having a known entity controlling this process, in the form of a hand-picked MS perhaps sharing its world view, would be better from such a government’s perspective.

Hopefully, the cautionary word here will be proven false, and officers with impeccable spoken reputations for professionalism and integrity are appointed to the coveted posts. The continuing spate of divisiveness in the country’s politics, however, is bad enough that such apprehensions must be plausibly raised.