New Delhi: At a time when India requires strategic military leadership, it is stuck with a disastrous army chief who delights in putting his foot in his mouth. Rarely does a week pass when General Bipin Rawat does not shoot his mouth off or comment outside his territory. Previously, he has stoked tensions with China over and above the fraught situation on the ground; China calls his stance unhelpful to warm ties. Last week, he angered the Jammu and Kashmir government by disparaging the state’s school curriculum without the necessary competence to do so. Over the weekend, he has further engineered the impossible of making Pakistan look moderate and reasonable. Rawat said the Indian army would make incursions into Pakistan disregarding its deterrence should the government order it. Pakistan called his statement irresponsible and an invitation for a nuclear catastrophe. Instead of seeking a peaceful solution to disputes, Pakistan accused India and its army chief of fomenting conflict.

The Indian army chief and indeed all services chiefs have an institutional role and a public one. The institutional role is executed away from the public gaze and the government is the best judge of a particular chief’s suitability for the high post. This writer would hesitate to comment about a service chief’s institutional role because little reliable and accurate information is available in public. The same cannot be said about a chief’s public role. He has as much or as little public role as, say, a senior bureaucrat. Bureaucrats are typically expected to refrain from public and especially controversial comments; they cannot indulge in political campaign; and they are advised to avoid open discussion on subjects that could cause general embarrassment to the government and furthermore incite misgivings with foreign governments. Alarmingly, General Rawat is convinced he is not bound by the constraints applicable to civil servants. He blurts out his mind like an indiscreet schoolboy without the smallest regard for the consequences. The disaster of his appointment, superseding two others, has come to reflect on the judgment of Narendra Modi.

General Rawat is probably competent to execute tactical military operations. That is the least to be expected. Strategically, however, he has repeatedly proved to be a cipher. The first important principle of strategy for India in the present perilous geopolitical circumstances is to maintain radio silence about the country’s short- and medium-term plans. By their consistent and ill-judged advertisement, Indian tactical military actions directed against Pakistan have worsened India’s strategic predicament. The so-called “surgical strikes” have become subject to the law of diminishing returns. The Indian army on average has suffered more battle casualties after than before “surgical strikes” were advertised and tied to the ruling party’s election campaign. General Rawat should be told to sober up because he has not displayed successful leadership of the army. The capacity of the army for bloodless dominance and hegemony has touched new lows under Rawat.

In any case, General Rawat has no remit to speak on the political situation of Jammu and Kashmir and to weigh in publicly on matters concerning deterrence weapons. Deterrence belongs to the political sphere at least in democracies like India and comments related to it require the utmost exercise of caution. To be sure, the armed forces are always war gaming escalatory scenarios. As important as this task is, it is equally and more important not to indulge in loose public talk about it. Every military nuclear power has thresholds which when exceeded by an enemy could result in nuclear retaliation. Militaries game threshold limits and strategic think tanks add to the corpus of knowledge and possibilities. All this, though, occurs in a controlled environment where there is acute sensitivity to the horrors of nuclear war. Sensationalizing them for personal glory or to advance a political agenda or both are dangerous adventures. In the past, India has been known throughout the world as a serious and sober nuclear power while Pakistan has carried the opposite attributes. Courtesy General Rawat, the roles are reversed.

India needs deep and discreet strategists to lead its militaries. The days of shallow and superficial commanding officers are numbered. Unless Narendra Modi sees the writing on the wall, Indian geopolitics is bound to face more headwinds than are customary for these troubled times.