The tragic demise of General Bipin Rawat, India’s first Chief of Defence Staff along with eleven other invaluable members of the Indian Armed Forces has shaken India. The visuals of Indians in the Nilgiris showering flower petals while uttering “Veera Vanakkam” would have made it extremely difficult for any Indian to hold back tears. At the same time, it was equally heart-warming to see the high regard that the average Indian has for members of the Armed Forces.
General Bipin Rawat lived a full life. He was brilliant as a tactician and as a scholar. The “Sword of Honour” awarded to him at the National Defence Academy was one among the many accomplishments that he would receive in a career that took him to the apex level of India’s Security Hierarchy. One distinct trait that was unique about General Rawat was his ability to speak his mind. It was also the trait that often led him into one controversy after another. But it was his straightforwardness that endeared him to the rank and file and enabled him to put in place defence reforms that would otherwise have been steadfastly resisted by individual services. In a way General Rawat had a “Pattenesque” panache minus Patton’s love affair with the usage of expletives in public.
The best way to honour the legacy of India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, is to have an honest conversation of the events leading up to the twitter thread of Indian Air Force where our worst fears came true. First, a clear line of succession needs to be laid out for individuals holding sensitive operational appointments in India. During times of armed conflict when the situations unfold in a rapid manner, attempts to target senior operational commanders by our adversaries would be par for the course. In such times a designated line of successors who would step in to take over with immediate effect needs to be laid down. The information about the pipeline of successors could be kept confidential but the process of takeover must be rapid. As of this moment, the Cabinet Committee on Security met and might deliberate for days before a new successor is announced. Our present response where India will remain without a Chief of Defence Staff for close to a week is worrying and unbecoming of Nuclear Power. A similar succession plan needs to exist for the key political appointments at the Central and State Level. As pointed out by Defence Analyst Abhijit Iyer Mitra, we must not forget that the Pakistan Air Force shot down Gujarat Chief Minister Balwant Rai Mehta in the heat of the 1965 war. Without an institutional succession plan, our ability to respond swiftly to National Security crises in the future are bound to be severely impaired.
The second learning from the tragedy is that the Government of India’s communication strategy is relevant for the pre-internet age. It is a lesson which the Government should have learnt after the India-Pakistan Air skirmish in the aftermath of the air strikes on Balakot the previous day. While the skirmish ended in the morning, by afternoon, the Pakistan DG ISPR had convinced a large segment of the Indian population that two Indian fighter jets were brought while knowing fully well that one of the jets was their own. This time too, Pakistani propaganda handles were full of unverified videos which claimed to show a charred body of India’s first CDS. Such tactics deployed in times of crisis can severely dent the national resolve where setbacks will be common.
The Government of India needs to have a representative that communicates information that the Government of India is aware of at the time. As an example the Ministry of Defence should have held a press conference stating that the chopper carrying the CDS has crashed and efforts to provide more concrete information are underway. Providing a tentative timeline as to when more concrete information could be expected is also important. In times of crisis, communicating what information the Government of India has and what the Government of India is attempting to garner in constant manner will prevent India’s adversaries from utilizing the information vacuum for psychological gains. It is sad that it has taken us a tragedy to become cognizant of these flaws in India’s response to National Security crises. But the truth, however uncomfortable, needs to be spoken and that is the best way to honor the legacy of India’s first “Chief of Defence Staff”.