If one looks back at 2021, then the passing away of India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) along with his wife and other military staff in the month of November qualifies as the most unfortunate of all tragedies.
The vacuum left behind by General Bipin Rawat’s unfortunate demise
General Rawat had played an instrumental role as India’s first Chief of Defence Staff when it came to modernising the country’s defence forces and keeping them battle-ready.
Integrated battle groups, theaterisation and preparation for grey-zone warfare, General Rawat had managed to make all necessary reforms in the structure and functioning of the armed forces.
Therefore, the vacuum that he has left behind is hard to fill. So, whoever succeeds General Rawat will have really big shoes to fill.
Let’s see who could take over as India’s next Chief of Defence Staff. Will it be General Naravane or someone else?
General Naravane- The Frontrunner
First and foremost, it has been said and written in the past that there is a broad consensus amongst the country’s defence forces about appointing an Army Chief as the CDS.
This puts General MM Naravane ahead of all other serving and retired service chiefs who could be appointed as the next Chief of Defence Staff.
Moreover, he was appointed as the Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (Chairman, CoSC). This was more of a stop-gap arrangement before the next Chief of Defence Staff was appointed by the government and it seemed to be a hint towards General Naravane’s future appointment as the CDS by signalling his seniority amongst the three service chiefs.
And then, General Naravane is also a very senior officer. Consider this, incumbent Chief of the Indian Air Force (IAF) Air Chief Marshal V.R. Choudhary and Navy Chief Admiral R. Hari Kumar assumed office on September 30 and November 30 respectively.
Within the Army also, there is obviously no one who is senior to General Naravane. He was appointed as the Army Chief on the basis of seniority after then Army Chief, General Bipin Rawat’s tenure came to an end. If the government has to choose from the existing pool of senior military commanders, General Naravane is the most natural choice.
And then, the battle indicators of the present Chief retiring are missing, which is otherwise the custom as he would have been visiting different formations/ units on his farewell visits.
The guessing game continues
Despite all indications of General Naravane being a natural successor to General Rawat, there are some circumstances that suggest otherwise.
The Defence Accounts Department tweeted a photo of the serving Army Chief receiving his pension payment order ahead of his retirement at the end of this month. This reportedly triggered a speculation in the South Block corridors about whether or not he will be elevated to the position of the CDS.
Yet, people may be reading too much into a development that seems more like an official formality.
However, there are more material reasons about why we remain clueless about the next Chief of Defence Staff. The choice of CDS is a matter of purely governmental discretion. Any military officer equivalent to the rank of Army Commander or flag officers of the armed forces is eligible for being appointed as the CDS.
Also, the appointment of a CDS is subtly different to the appointment of a service chief. The CDS is a military officer but also functions as a bureaucrat and is also responsible for coordinating with the political leadership of the country.
Therefore, the government is not bound by the line of succession when it comes to choosing the CDS and can appoint any eligible officer as the next Chief of Defence Staff.
And there are at least two candidates who may also be in serious contention for the top post. Former IAF chief Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria is one of those candidates. In the past, he was instrumental in ironing out differences among the three different wings of the military forces when it came to the creation of the integrated theatre commands.
Similarly, former Navy Chief Admiral Karambir Singh could also be a contender for the top post. What goes in favour of the former Navy chief is his long term service as a chief from May 2019 to November 2021. His experience could come in handy at the top level.
Therefore, the question of who will be the next Chief of Defence Staff remains very much undecided. Yet, the issue should get cleared soon with General Naravane’s approaching retirement as the Indian Army chief. Whoever takes office as the second CDS, it remains undisputed that General Rawat’s successor will have a huge vacuum to fill.