Prime Minister Modi was the architect of the CDS post, through which he hoped to steer reforms in the armed forces

After General Rawat, who? Nearly a week after the tragic death of India’s Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, in a helicopter crash on December 8, this is an answer no one in New Delhi seems to know. A set of between four and six candidates—is believed to have been sent to the government and a decision is expected soon.

The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), which laid down the procedure for the CDS’s selection in 2019, suggested a list of six serving three- and four-star officers.

What people in defence ministry circles do know, however, is that the next CDS will be someone with a proven track record of delivery and whom Prime Minister Narendra Modi trusts implicitly to deliver on the agenda of defence reforms. This is not just because the prime minister heads the appointment committee of cabinet (ACC) comprising just one other cabinet minister--Union minister for home Amit Shah—but also because defence reform is an agenda close to the Prime Minister’s heart. Among the still lesser known aspects of General Rawat’s one-year, 11-month tenure as CDS were his one-on-one meetings with Prime Minister Modi at his 7, Lok Kalyan Marg office. At these unscheduled meetings, called at very short notice roughly once a month, the CDS briefed the PM on a wide range of issues, not necessarily confined to defence matters, and gave him a progress report on his drive to bring about an integration of the services.

This fits in with what is known about the post so far. As the topmost defence official and single-point interface between the military and the political leadership, the CDS is a sensitive political appointment. Prime Minister Modi took the government, the armed forces and politicians by shock when he first announced the post of CDS, from the ramparts of the Red Fort on August 15, 2019. It came as a surprise to many because ever since the post of CDS had been suggested by the Arun Singh task force in 2001, it had been buried by the system. While Vajpayee’s government came closest to appointing the CDS in 2001 (then navy chief Admiral Sushil Kumar was a forerunner), it stopped short of doing so. It created the office of the CDS, an HQ Integrated Defence Staff (IDS), but left it headless. The UPA shelved it for the decade it was in power because of the Congress party’s somewhat unfounded Nehruvian-era fears of a coup. The appointment of a CDS was one of the key recommendations a committee of defence experts headed by Lt General D.B. Shekatkar made in 2015. It did not seem to be a priority for the first term of the Modi government Things began changing in his second term. A CCS note sent up to the prime minister recommended the creation of a less important post of permanent chairman of the CoSC (Chiefs of Staff Committee). As one top defence official says, the PM scored out the recommendation and insisted it be replaced with CDS.

The August 15 announcement was swiftly followed by another in November 2019 just days before General Bipin Rawat was to step down. There’s little to suggest what went into the decision to appoint the CDS or whether other candidates were considered for it. (One service chief who retired in 2019, when asked whether he would be CDS, is believed to have said “it’s for Bipin”). General Rawat as then army chief was the Chairman CoSC and the senior most service chief, which made his step-up into the CDS’s office a logical conclusion. This seems to be the case even now with the present army chief, General Manoj Mukund Naravane. The army chief, the senior most service chief and a low-profile officer with an impeccable reputation, is believed to be in line for the next CDS. General Naravane’s appointment will also fit with the recommendation made by Lt General Shekatkar--for the first two CDSes to be from the army and both former chiefs. This recommendation was made because the committee felt that India’s present unresolved boundaries with Pakistan and China are on land and could be better understood by an army officer.

But as with the announcement of the post of CDS itself, only one man knows for sure.