Concluding his recent address to the annual combined commanders conference during which he listed some serious challenges facing not just the armed forces but the entire national security structure of the country, the prime minister concluded by saying — “There have been concerns that have been raised in recent times about the nature of civil-military relations in our country. Let me assert... that the political leadership of India has the highest faith in its military and its institutional rectitude within the democratic framework. The apolitical nature of our military and its proven professionalism are the envy of the world and have also nurtured the Indian democratic experience....”
What prompted this assertion after 66 years of magnificent service by the Indian armed forces remains a matter of conjecture. The temptation to jump to the obvious conclusion that this was a fallout of the recent episode of an erstwhile army chief’s brief spat with the government over his age would be doing injustice to the deeper ramifications of the prime minister’s message to the military commanders, the ministry of defence and the nation’s democratic institutions.
Addressing the same conference last year, the prime minister had emphasized that various challenges would require confronting issues of jointness and constructive debate to develop composite capabilities. Enjoining on the MoD to develop synergies, he had cautioned that compartmentalized views would delay India’s response and dilute its impact. That he was addressing the entire national security edifice was clear when he referred to the task forces led by Naresh Chandra (security structures and decision-making processes) and Ravindra Gupta (defence modernization and self-reliance), respectively. He specifically observed that these task forces had made a number of valid suggestions and that it was in India’s interest to reach a consensus on their recommendations. Coming as it did from the highest executive, this had generated hope not just amongst the military commanders but across the security community. The government, it seemed, was prepared to initiate defence management reforms.
A year later, when the prime minister rose to address the commanders, once again, he would have been conscious of the fact that his earlier advice on evolving consensus on the recommendations of the two committees had met with little success. He would also have been aware that the reasons for this stagnation do not rest at the doors of the uniformed fraternity only. The Kargil Review Committee opined that the “political, bureaucratic, military and intelligence establishments appear to have developed a vested interest in the status quo.”
It is hardly surprising that this year, while emphasizing the need to develop comprehensive national power, the prime minister drew attention of both the MoD and the armed forces to the twin tasks of making tangible progress in establishing the right structures for higher defence management and the appropriate civil-military balance in decision-making that the complex security environment demands. He further touched upon reviewing the different task force reports that the government had initiated to achieve a higher index of indigenous capability in defence production.
That the prime minister was compelled to repeat his earlier plea is indeed a poor reflection on national security governance. The real reason behind the prime minister raising the issue of civil-military relations lies in his concern that those within the system favouring status quo are now winning. By showing faith in the military, he was perhaps attempting to apply a healing touch to the frustration that is evident within the military establishment.
The prime minister and the defence minister expressed serious concern over the spate of incidents of indiscipline in some army units. The army was reminded that the educational and social background of the jawans have changed and that there was a need for sensitizing officers. Whilst these are valid observations, we would be deluding ourselves if we were to believe that the problem is that simple.
There are many issues that lead to considerable stress in the domain of civil- military relations. Suicide in the armed forces has shown a frightening rise. Yet, when one such incident was brought up in Parliament, a discussion was shelved on the pretext that it would be detrimental to morale. Which self-respecting democracy would respond as supinely as we did to the desecration of bodies of soldiers defending the borders? The list is indeed long.
In a paper titled “Absent Dialogue”, Anit Mukherjee, a former army officer and a research scholar, outlines three characteristics of civil-military relations in India. The first is the strong administrative, procedural and bureaucratic control that is exercized by the MoD over the armed forces. The second is the exclusion of the military from crucial decision-making fora, thus denying it a legitimate role in policy-making. Finally, as a consequence of these, armed forces are left to their own devices in areas of threat assessments, operations, force structures, training and, to a limited degree, in promotions and postings. He concludes that this structure of civil-military relations loosely translates into a system where, according to the noted strategic thinker, K. Subrahmanyam, politicians enjoy power without responsibility, bureaucrats wield power without accountability, and the military assumes responsibility without direction.
The reality is that with the changing socio-economic profile of India’s population, the rising aspirations of the people and the arrival of the information age with free and instant flow of information, the entire approach to managing the armed forces must change. Whilst the onus of how this must evolve within the military training and social domains rests squarely within the armed forces, it can never be achieved without a similar change in the way national security is organized and managed in the larger context of civil military relations.
Strained civil-military relations are resulting in turf wars that prevent the military from working towards integrated warfare. This state of affairs is incompatible not only in the context of the modern battlefield but equally in the context of the current economic slow down. Coming as this does in the face of alarming reports of stagnant modernization and depleting force levels, the armed forces are now faced with a double shock: severe internal stresses coupled with poor equipment in the face of dynamic external threats.
The military is the most complex of democratic institutions because in its heart it continues to believe that its commitment to the nation is the only honourable thing to do. It is the sacred duty of every democratic institution to remember that the day this institution begins to have second thoughts on the fairness of the cause of its commitment, India’s survival itself will be in jeopardy.
True civil-military relations are about rebuilding and balancing trust under the overarching umbrella of political control over the military. If indeed this was the underlying message of the prime minister to the wider national security audience, it was more than timely.