Gen Rawat: A place in history?

Gen Rawat: A place in history?

The political masters broke the seniority principle to pick him, and that compromised his position, though he was honest, decisive


I was pained and shocked to hear of the unfortunate death on December 8 of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Gen Bipin Rawat, his wife and 11 brave officers and troops of the Armed Forces in a helicopter crash in Coonoor. The sorrow was accentuated as I had known Gen Rawat and observed his career right from the time he was a youngster. I was a little over five years his senior and had come in touch with him several times.

Two decades ago, he took over an appointment at Army Headquarters from me, when I was promoted and posted as a Brigade Commander in Poonch. It was a close interaction, and I saw how he could grasp the nuances of the new appointment quickly. He was extremely intelligent and diligent. He was also considerate enough to invite me to his house for dinner on the eve of my departure to Poonch. Madhulika, his wife, excelled in hospitality. Thereafter, I met him several times and even exchanged emails when he was the Army Chief, and later CDS. Though I had retired, he was magnanimous in responding.

When Gen Rawat took over as Army Chief, he superseded two senior officers.  Supersession for the Army Chief’s post is seldom done as it politicises the Army, which by far has remained apolitical. The seniority principle is the best suited for the Chiefs of Armed Forces. As it is, to reach among the top six Lt Generals, Army officers will have already literally gone through fire and brimstone. There is very little to choose among them as each one is equally competent. However, it is rumoured that National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval prevailed upon Prime Minister Narendra Modi to appoint Gen Rawat, who was third in seniority.

Unfortunately, this was not a wise decision. A sentiment rose among the top Lt Generals that they can beat the seniority principle through political patronage.  Second, it also burdened Gen Rawat with a heavy baggage to prove himself to the government that their decision to overrule seniority was the right decision. He had to curry favours with the government and had to yield to their unprofessional demands, practice politics, and play to the government gallery.

Thus, he accepted the lowest budgetary allocations, harking back to pre-1962 levels; did not pursue the pay commission anomalies; downgraded the Army to lower status than the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) in terms of allowances; justified the government decision not to grant non-functional upgrade (NFU) to the Armed Forces; accepted levy of income tax on disability pensions; and opened the cantonments for the public, with little regard to the safety of families, not realising that the pandemic could play havoc in cantonments as well.

Unfortunately, Gen Rawat also made statements against officers of the Armed Forces that they do not care about the troops, which caused disquiet in the Army. Just to set the record straight, the officer-to-troops casualty ratio is the highest in the Indian Army in comparison to all other Armed Forces of the world.

His recent statement that the IAF is a supporting arm of the Army did not go well with the Air Force and, instead of helping integrate the Armed Forces, it sowed doubts and anguish over whether he was treating the three Services at par?

One of Gen Rawat’s biggest mistakes -- he accepted to wear another hat as the Secretary of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA) in the MoD. As a four-star General, he was senior in precedence to a Secretary to the Government of India. Of the two hats that he was wearing, one was of a lower status. It could have been easily resolved by having a three-star officer as his deputy and Secretary, DMA. He could have overseen his work as CDS. However, he did not want to ruffle the feathers of the politicians and bureaucrats who were averse to any uncomfortable obstacles.

It is also to the discredit of NSA Ajit Doval, who holds cabinet rank, to keep Gen Rawat out of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). The two meetings of the CCS in the aftermath of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan were held without the presence of either the CDS or the three Service Chiefs. I wonder who gave the strategic inputs for decision-making? In short, even as CDS, Gen Rawat had to adopt a conciliatory position on the issue of the decision-making hierarchy by not insisting on being a part of the CCS.

On the plus side, he was completely involved in reorganising the Armed Forces to fight an integrated war. It is egregious that the India-China border is managed by three Army Commands and three Air Force Commands. In contrast, China has the single unified Western Theatre Command to manage the same border. Gen Rawat was going ahead with theaterisation of Commands to set right the incongruity.

When he was Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee, he operationalised the Special Forces Division. He also operationalised the Defence Cyber Agency in August 2021. The groundwork for the Air Defence Command is in the final stages.  It was delayed due to Covid, as I understand. The Tri-Service Logistics Command and the Training and Doctrine Command have been envisioned. The 15 geographic operational Commands are set to amalgamate into three operational Commands with one each looking after China, Pakistan and the maritime theatre. Some special consideration is being given to J&K as it has borders with both our adversaries.

Gen Rawat had the sagacity to take decisions against opposition if he thought he was serving the national interest. He was ready to bear the brunt of being unpopular in pursuit of what he thought was right. Few can bear the mental pressure and be equanimous in the face of adversity and general discontent. This quality made him a decisive General who could hold the bull by its horns if he had made up his mind. Many, of course, consider that his acceptance of all that the political masters thrust on him came at the cost of the Services. Whatever be the truth of that, one fact remains: that he was honest, with very few personal requirements. 

In sum, Gen Rawat’s untimely death resurrected him and made him a larger-than-life figure for the masses. But whether he deserves a place in history is a verdict yet to be passed.

(The writer retired as Commandant of Army War College, Mhow)

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox