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If the police were more like the army, the chaos seen on Friday among Indian cops of three states in a wrangle over the custody of a politician would be inconceivable. For the nth time, that sordid episode spotlit our need to free the police forces of direct political control so that they can go strictly by the law as enforcers, not the word of politicians like stooges. As with soldiers, cops should not have to obey field orders from outside the fold. While the discipline and diligence of India’s armed forces are held highly, how well the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force can work together in case of war has long been under whispery speculation. In 2020, the Narendra Modi government sought to settle any doubt by placing the trio of forces under common leadership. General Bipin Rawat of the army was appointed our first chief of defence staff (CDS) in a reform initiative aimed at setting up tri-service ‘theatre commands’ for different fronts of action. Oddly, however, more than five months after the general’s tragic loss in an air crash, a successor has not been named.

Among the countless things we did better post-1947 than Pakistan, Nehruvians might be inclined to argue, was to insulate civilian rule from a military takeover. This was afforded not just by a larger landmass that allowed spaced-apart command bases, but also by an overall defence structure that kept Indian leaders of air, land and sea forces safely apart in their peace-time regimen, thus reducing the scope for collusion over a coup. Across the border, in contrast, Rawalpindi has been calling the shots in ways that do peace and stability no good. The purpose of our defence apparatus, though, is to defend the country. And Nehru’s record on this has the smudge of China’s 1962 incursion, one made worse in some accounts by his pick of a favoured general. India fared much better in the 1971 liberation of Bangladesh, with armed action led by a field marshal in the fabled mould of a commander who knew his job and got it done. But it took the Kargil flashpoint of 1999 for the idea that form must follow function to be drafted as a hard proposal to reform our battle readiness. At war, unified command in a theatre of conflict can bestow an edge if the armed trio is kept briefed and ready to roll. That nudge for synchrony had plodded along for two decades before Modi ended the waffle over—and faced down force resistance to—a top-brass rejig focused on specific threats. The logic was clear. To fend off a pincer attack by two adversaries, say, our response would have to be armed with wider strategic options for force alliance in each theatre. And with China bristling to undo a unipolar world order, India could hold the key to whether Asia emerges as a global champion of freedom or slides the way of autocracy.

While the CDS’s position can be kept unfilled since it’s not an operational but a reformist role (as of now), the delay speaks of its sensitivity and points to a related irony. To the extent that political approval of candidates is a hold-back, as seems to be the case, it reveals a challenge of institutionalization. Ideally, in general, loyalty to the Constitution, our bond of nationhood, should be the only criterion of dedication that counts for the top defence job. And the more robustly its values are generally upheld, the easier it would be to forge civilian-military trust under the clarity of its rules—and secure the country as best we can. Internal discord over our unifying bond only gets in the way.

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