rime Minister Narendra Modi, in his Independence Day address to the nation Thursday, announced the decision to appoint a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). This officer, to be a five-star General, would become the single point of contact for the administration in defence matters. The officer would integrate the operations of the three wings of the nation’s military, namely the Army, Navy and the Air Force. Administratively, the logic given might be that it could help with better coordination among the different wings of the military. It could also facilitate easing defence testing and acquisition procedures, given that different forces would be reporting to this single officer, who will be entrusted with taking things forward.
China, Italy and the United Kingdom are among the nations that have such a unitary position. However, it is another matter whether such intense centralisation of power would really work. It would be difficult for an officer whose expertise is largely confined to the nature of work of his own force to know in detail about the functioning and nitty-gritty of another force. In the absence of such nuanced understanding, it would be difficult for an officer to do justice to the needs of forces other than the one s/he belongs to. The position could have its powers restricted to facilitation of defence procurement and should kick in only when coordination is absolutely essential. It should not be a post that lords over the service chiefs in all aspects, given the dangers of how power can corrupt. Perhaps the current system of administration itself has systems in place to ensure coordination between the three services. What might be additionally required is coordination with paramilitary police and intelligence wings. The CDS could do well to address the lacuna existing in this space currently.
The consolidation of power could be a threat in case such an officer operates with any intention, other than the protection of the interests of the nation and its people. The dictum that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” holds good anywhere in the world, more so in the Indian sub-continent. Given the sway top officers have over all administrative affairs of the country, the threat of misutilisation of this powerful post is very real. Therefore, it would be unwise to entrust any institution or individual with unfettered powers.
The present dispensation with its brute majority in Parliament will be able to bulldoze through meek opposition resistance on all important matters. But it does not mean all decisions are always sound. Under the present government, many an institution has been restructured or remoulded. They have not delivered huge change in functioning though.
Given its experience now of more than five years, the incumbent government should be careful with the way it advances towards altering existing mechanisms. Experiences of other countries that have a CDS should be looked into for greater understanding of the efficacy of such a position. Even in countries such as the UK, the experience with a CDS is reported to not be up to the mark. Also, even if such a system works for another country, it may not work for India.
The government, it seems, has sought feedback from the forces before it decides on the contours of the position. In the present circumstances, ample caution is required before creating an immensely powerful position such as this.