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The Absent Dialogue examines India’s uneasy civil-military relations

NewsThe Absent Dialogue examines India’s uneasy civil-military relations

The three broad characteristics of the absent dialogue are ‘lack of civilian expertise, institutional design with strong bureaucratic control and high degree of military autonomy in its domain’.


New Delhi: Anit Mukherjee’s “The Absent Dialogue: Politicians, Bureaucrats, and the Military in India”, a detailed examination about how India’s civil-military relations have undermined its military effectiveness is indeed an indispensable book for students of national security as well as policymakers. Anit is suitably qualified to address these issues of concern as he is a former Army officer, who has transited to “academia”, and is currently an Assistant Professor at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies. The pillars of his research rest firmly on both archival material and personal insights.
The book reveals that the fabric of civil-military relations in India seems to be bogged down in a relationship marked by an absence of dialogue between the political leadership, military and bureaucracy. The obsession with keeping the military subservient to the political authority has overshadowed constructive engagement between the three protagonists. In the cataclysmic war with China in 1962, there was even political interference at the operational level and he mentions, “Krishna Menon’s toxic impact” and how he played “a central role in a near total breakdown of civil-military relations culminating in the resignation of General Thimayya”.
This uneasy relationship has also been fanned by the dominant role of the military in our neighbourhood. Unfortunately, in spite of the Army’s apolitical character it has not been given greater space in decision making due to the remote possibility of “being a threat to its democracy”. Quoting Stephen Rosen; the Indian military “has been separated from society in a number of ways…and is viewed with suspicion by civilian leadership”.
The “central claim advanced in this book” is that civil-military relation “compromises the effectiveness of the military”. Anit has concentrated on five key variables to support his views. These include weapons procurement, jointness of three forces to operate together, professional military education, promotion policies, and defence planning. He feels the reason why mistrust has been allowed to remain is because of three factors: lack of existential threat, low salience in electoral politics and a reluctance to change.
I, however, disagree regarding his view on the lack of a threat. The country has had four conflicts with Pakistan, had suffered defeat against China in 1962 and has been battling counter insurgency and a proxy war. India has unresolved borders with both Pakistan and China with greater collusivity being apparent between them and lately we have faced a standoff in Doklam and Galwan. In addition, both countries are nuclear weapon states.
In the first chapter, the author examines established theories of civil-military relationships, primarily those of Samuel Huntington, Stephen Cohen and Eliot Cohen. Regarding the level of military autonomy keeping in view civilian expertise of the military domain, institutional structures in the shape of the Ministry of Defence and attributes of military effectiveness. He then writes about the debate between “objective” and “subjective control”, which is the essence of understanding the complex relationship within the triad. Mukherjee suggests that the Indian military prefers the model of “objective control”, wherein the politician sets strategic goals, and the military executes its tasks with minimum interference.
However, the consistent inability of the political executive to clearly define strategic objectives, giving reasons for the same has facilitated a powerful bureaucracy to step in and conduct national security without the necessary expertise to do so and is the reason for the “unequal” dialogue.
He quotes Admiral Arun Prakash: “a primary fault line in the existing system is civil-military dissonance.” Shakti Sinha has stated, because it lacks expertise the MoD “is essentially seen blocking decision-making instead of questioning the Services and collaborating with them to achieve national security targets.” According to General V.P. Malik, “the military felt isolated from policy planning and the decision making process leading to increasing suspicion and friction between civilian bureaucrats in the MoD and the Service Headquarters.”
In chapter two, Anit dwells on the historical evolution of civil-military relations, and states, “Nehru’s greatest accomplishment was the establishment of firm civilian control.” He writes about the “clash of cultures” between the politicians and military officers at Independence and mentions how Nehru was adamant that the title of “Commander-in-Chief had a particular historical connotation that was associated with colonial rule and ill-suited for a parliamentary democracy”.
There is no doubt that during the period leading up to the 1962 War civil-military relations were possibly at its worst. To quote Major General D.K. Palit, “There was an absence of free and frank dialogue and a structured gap in communication.” Anit says that Nehru laid more priority on civilian control rather than military effectiveness. He also quotes Kunal Verma who said, “his biggest failing was the virtual destruction of his own military thanks to his deep rooted insecurities”.
The book analyses the history of civil-military relations in India by assessing the effectiveness of the military in various wars since its Independence and the Prime Ministers who were leading the country at the time. In contrast to Nehru, Lieutenant General S.L. Menezes stated about Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, “The relationship between the Prime Minister and Army Chief was sound right through 1965… Any decision taken by the political establishment was left to the military to carryout unfettered.”
The 1971 War is undoubtedly considered India’s finest hour, but Anit points out that though the dominant narrative was regarding a free hand given to the military, “the civilians did play a much more active role”. Unfortunately, “victory is a terrible teacher and problems in joint operations and higher defence management were glossed over”.
On IPKF, he quotes Arzan Tarapore, who states, “The civilian leaderships primary failing…was their lack of articulating how military action would further the nation’s political goals.” The formation of a Core Group by Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi “was clearly indicative of the weakness in national security architecture”. This was when General Sunderji brooked no interference in operational matters and “with his domineering personality kept civil servants at bay”.
He also writes about Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s decision to restrict military operations during Kargil by not crossing the Line of Control as being a decisive example of the political direction of war. But states that this “also reflected of overt nuclearization in the sub-continent” as civilians were forced to pay greater attention to military plans.
The false promise of self-reliance, the title of the next chapter reflects his assessment of DRDO, R&D establishments and the weapons procurement process. The crux lies in “how much autonomy the military should have in choosing its weapons”. He writes about the lack of expertise both by civilians and the military due to the “rotational policy” and points out that “the navy is better at nurturing design expertise than the other two Services”. He also talks about how in 1948, ordinance factories that were controlled by the Master General Ordinance, were transferred to the MoD, resulting in a “routine battle royal” between the OFs and the Army, “as the latter failed to meet its production targets”. He then alludes to the culpability of political parties and mentions both the Jaguar deal in 1979 and the Bofors deal in 1987 which slowed down the bureaucracy’s decision making. Incidentally, it took 30 years to procure another artillery gun after the Bofors scandal.
Chapter four deals with “India’s Unique Approach to Jointness”; “to plan, train and operate in a mutually reinforcing manner”. He states that while some attribute the problems to a turf battle and control of resources; the issue lies in “the differing visions of war of the three Services”. There are two approaches to jointness. The first one is “through coordination and the second one is by integration”, where there is “unity of effort”.
The preferred option of the Services has generally been “coordination”, thereby retaining maximum autonomy and command and control. Which as per Lieutenant General Vijay Oberoi, “continues to be advocated at operational and theatre level”. The author analyses jointness during the various wars since 1947 and states that there was little critical analysis after the 1971 War that “stymied further debate and movement towards jointness”. Admitting weakness in jointness, Manohar Parrikar had stated, “integration of the three Services does not exist in the present structure”.
The next chapter concerns training, which he calls “an in-house affair”. Anit feels that “civilian intervention is crucial in designing an effective system not just to enforce jointness but to emphasis education over training” and states military education is almost exclusively the military’s domain. He mentions that the Chiefs of Staff Committee had recommended a Defence University in 1967, and in spite of the Subrahmanyam Committee Report of 2002, the institution has not shaped up and “the government was still struggling with an appropriate intellectual vision for this institution”.
“Simply the Best” deals with promotions, which is an all-important constituent of military effectiveness but has not fetched much attention. He raises issues of supersession, inflated system of reports, as well as sudden changes in promotion policies which as per an MoD study gave rise “to a feeling of favouritism or perception that the change has been tailor made to help…particular section of officers”. He quotes Lieutenant General Mohinder Puri, a former Military Secretary: “There is no consistency in policy—changes happen depending on the person in the chair.” The issue of merit versus seniority for selecting the Army Chief has best been summed up by Lieutenant General H.S. Panag: “Though it’s good to have a meritocracy, there must be clear criteria for determining merit”, though Srinath Raghvan feels “the choice of Service Chiefs is a matter of political judgement.” But the author ends this chapter by clearly stating that more research is required on these issues.
Anit talks about defence planning in Chapter Seven, giving out the evolution of the same over the years and the transformation under Arun Singh, who created the Defence Planning Staff (DPS) in 1986, an integrated office with Service officers and civilian counterparts. The organisation was tasked to carry out threat analysis, own objectives, evolve military aims and recommend balanced force levels. The DPS gave a realistic costing estimate and questioned many of the assumptions made by the Services and recommended a joint integrated plan. Though the plan was presented to the Cabinet, it “never got the necessary financial sanction due to a tightening economic situation”.
The author views the creation of the Defence Planning Staff (DPS) as the most “innovative and promising experiment”—an integrated inter service organisation “incorporating both military expertise and financial planners under the same roof”. The Kargil War triggered defence reforms. The offices of Defence Acquisition Council, Defence Procurement Board and the Director-General Acquisitions were created. The Defence Planning Staff was incorporated in the Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff, allowing for the integration of common needs of the three Services, “making planning more systematic”.
The author identifies the absence of civilian expertise, institutional designs that lead to silos with the Ministry of Finance controlling the MoD, which in turn controls the Service headquarters and defence plans including Long Term Integrated Perspective Plans being generated by military officers serving on a limited tenure basis, as some major flaws.
In the end the author has summarised his views. A.K. Antony’s eight-year-long tenure was the longest, but “he failed to take ownership of the Ministry and was driven from one crisis to another”. As far as the bureaucracy is concerned, it has allowed a trust deficit to grow but quoting Stephen Cohen, “not only does India have civilian control; it has an almost crushing civilian dominance”. However, a former Defence Secretary, Vijay Singh has stated, “any decision that does not go the military’s way is attributed to bureaucratic intrigue… leading to much acrimony”. The military, in turn, “complains about civilian control but paradoxically enjoys the autonomy under this model”. However, it cannot remain functioning in a silo. The three broad characteristics of the absent dialogue are “lack of civilian expertise, institutional design with strong bureaucratic control and high degree of military autonomy in its domain”.
It is, therefore, imperative that discourse or consensus among the triad of national security: the political establishment, civilian bureaucracy and military need to drive security policies. India’s military effectiveness cannot be compromised because of a “dysfunctional triangular relationship”.
Civilian control over the military has been hailed as one of the successes of India’s democracy because it is rare in post-colonial countries, but as Anit states, “this maybe rightly celebrated, but this has come at a cost”.

Major Gen Jagatbir Singh (Retd) is an Army veteran.

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