It is a small mercy that the outgoing UPA government — which, by all accounts, faces an almost certain defeat in the just concluded elections — ultimately refrained from taking some questionable decisions it seemed determined to see through just before its departure. Among these was its resolve to foist on the country a first Lokpal of its choice. However, wiser counsels prevailed later.
What has frustrated the lame duck government a lot more is that it had to beat a retreat on its last-minute manoeuvre to appoint a judicial commission to investigate the “snoopgate” affair in Gujarat that could have embarrassed the BJP’s prime ministerial nominee and Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi. In the midst of the government’s desperate efforts, the young woman who was allegedly “snooped and spied on” and her father petitioned the Supreme Court that they wanted no inquiry. The solicitor general informed the court that the government had dropped the proposal.
Against this backdrop, it is deeply regrettable, to put it no more strongly, that the Manmohan Singh government has wantonly rejected the most important and innovative recommendation of the Naresh Chandra task force, appointed by the government itself because of the imperative to reform and revamp Indian security, external and internal. Yet, after inaction on the report for two years, it has suddenly consigned the key recommendations to the dustbin.
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To be sure, the government has accepted a large number of the task force’s relatively minor suggestions, and some of them would surely be beneficial. However, what good is that when the most useful and urgently needed recommendation for promoting inter-services cooperation in the military has been brushed aside casually?
After deep thought, the task force had recommended that a four-star general (or an officer of equivalent rank) should serve as permanent chairman, with a fixed tenure of two years, of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (CSC). The proposed scheme clearly provided that the permanent chairman of the CSC would have no say in operational matters of the three services but would be responsible for bringing about the maximum inter-services coordination and cooperation. The areas for this are vast and include supervision of the two tri-services commands that we have, integration of the special forces of all three services, fixing the priorities in the military’s procurement, integration of supplies and so on.
The damaging consequences of the present arrangement — under which the most senior of the three single-service chiefs presides over the committee of chiefs until his retirement — have been obvious for too long. Not only is the tenure of the chairman usually short (in one case, it was only 30 days), but the temporary chairman, being commander-in-chief of the service to which he belongs, also has very little time for his “additional duties”. The supervision of the Strategic Command is clearly a critically important function of the chairman. Several of those who have served in this position have confessed that they never had adequate time to parley with the chief of the strategic command. Is this what we want continued at a time when Pakistan has acquired tactical nuclear weapons and the BJP has promised to reconsider and update the nuclear doctrine?
The only thing worse than the government’s rejection of the idea of having a permanent chairman is the reason that it has trotted out in support of its wrong decision. Since the issue of having a chief of defence staff (CDS) is still under “political discussion”, it says, the task force’s recommendation is pointless. Nothing can be more disingenuous than this. Anyone with elementary knowledge of matters military knows that the very idea of having a CDS — a five-star general, admiral or air chief marshal — is anathema to the entire political class and to almost the entire bureaucracy, dominated by the IAS, which firmly controls the ministry of defence.
In the year 2000, the country had come closest to having a CDS. The K. Subrahmanyam committee on the Kargil War had strongly suggested this and a group of ministers headed by L.K. Advani had endorsed it. The then prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, however, held over the decision after consulting former president R. Venkataraman and former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, both of whom had earlier served as defence ministers in Congress governments. Vajpayee had promised a firm decision within a year.
Twelve years later, the task force discovered in its wide consultations that there was no way that the appointment of a CDS would go through. So it proposed a via media that it expected to lead to the desired objective. That, too, has been swept aside, alas.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator