Amid CDS appointment process, Govt seeks list of top serving, retired defence officers. Centre amends rules to enlarge pool for appointing CDS; both serving and retired officers to be considered

by Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (Retd)

A Huge Challenge

Finding the right person has now turned out to be a political challenge, especially since the selection cannot depend on Annual Confidential Reports (ACRs) and the paper trail of professional competence. Thus, the political leadership will have to rely on observations and opinions collected through intermediaries including the Intelligence Bureau. In practice, it would boil down to a personal choice of the PM and possibly his advisers including the defence minister and the national security advisor.

The extant files of the Department of Personnel & Training (DoPT) and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) should contain the logic followed to appoint Gen Rawat. It would have been a choice between three. If the new eligibility has to be taken into account, the paperwork to narrow down the choices on file to manageable numbers would be intimidating. In the absence of ACRs to maintain criteria equity, what parameters should be included to select a panel for the political leadership to take a final call? In practice, one can expect that the panel will be shaped from the top and the paperwork would be moulded to convey the sense of legal and procedural sanctity.

The political leadership would necessarily have to fall back more on spoken reputation and hearsay unlike when only the three Service Chiefs were in contention. The danger now is that if spoken reputation is going to carry the day, it would depend on whom one consults. This is not to rule out the feasibility of finding a suitable person through an environment scan. But it begs the question as to why the pool for selection could not have been confined to serving or ex-Chiefs (four-star) or three-star Cs-in-C. Now, with 62 years being the limit for initial appointment, for all practical purposes, all ex-Chiefs are ineligible — unless he has retired before 62 years on account of completing three years as Chief, which is a rare possibility indeed.

Intent Will Be Key

To expect that a better choice for CDS post can emerge from outside the above cluster is to be blind to the value of experience as an eligibility criterion. Prudence would suggest that other things remaining equal, such experience is likely to be maximised in the Chiefs and to a limited extent in the Cs-in-C. Unless of course, the selection is about finding a pliable person who can be a loyal follower instead of having displayed high levels of professional integrity and loyalty to the Constitution. If the political path adopted is weighted towards identifying ideological/personal loyalists, it could strike at the very roots of keeping the Indian Armed Forces apolitical in outlook. The expanded choice pool for CDS is clearly not a healthy sign. It could indeed pose a grave hazard not only in security terms but also for the foundations of a democratic India.

The hugely expanded pool could also ignite and unleash the demons of ambitions and consequent possibility of leveraging those ambitions by political leadership. There is also the enhanced prospects of dirty games and cut-throat competition to impress the political leadership. This can cause immense damage to the cultural and social fabric of the Armed Forces leadership. Apart from generating unhealthy internecine competition within an individual Service, there could be bad blood created at the inter-Service level. Jointness, one of the primary objectives of the Theatre Command, could be a major casualty.

Following the sudden and tragic demise of the first CDS, Gen Rawat, the three Chiefs went on to retire despite being eligible for CDS appointment. By not initiating the selection process, the needle of suspicion would point to political and bureaucratic culpability towards match-fixing by trying to bypass integrity and experience and a preference for extraneous selection criteria.

Despite the drawbacks of the new rules, the political leadership could still make a good choice in the next CDS, who may unfortunately have to live under the shadow of being viewed with suspicion as having been appointed through undue political patronage. This could only be a temporary drawback that can be belied by a performance of duty driven by professional integrity and loyalty to the Constitution. But the possible long-term dangers posed by the new eligibility criteria are certainly avoidable.

Looking ahead, when the Theatre Commands are created, the CDS could be selected from among the Theatre Commanders. Till then, the Modi government would be well-advised to shrink the pool, though the age criterion could be retained. Ideally, it should now keep the selection open only for serving Chiefs and finally pick an individual who can drive the much overdue military reforms. After all, such a move is only an amendment away.