IDSA COMMENT

The Third Front: Military Ethics

November 4, 2010

That the Colaba land scam has knocked CWG corruption off the headlines indicates the differing yardstick used for viewing corruption in the military. It cannot be otherwise. The nation invests materially in the military, bases its self-image partially on it, spares its better youth for martial endeavour and rests secure in the belief that its security is in safe hands. That the Army Chief is seized of the issue is evident from his very first interview in which he highlighted that its ‘internal health’ was a priority. His latest directive that commanders ensure zero-tolerance for departures from Service ethic proves that military ethics constitute its ‘third front’, the other two being China and Pakistan or “Chipak” (the China-Pak axis referred to by MJ Akbar and popularized by Sandeep Unnithan in his India Today article, ‘The Chipak Threat’).

A seemingly reasonable approach could well be that there is no ‘crisis’ and over-reaction is unwarranted. Media hype should not lead to pressure on the military, as it would impact the institution adversely. The media and activists have a role to play, one they inevitably overplay. The state of affairs can instead be attributed to society from which the human material is drawn. Departures from the norm are ‘aberrations’. Given that it is over a million strong, defaulters would exist. The military has internal procedures to cope.

In any case, the downward spiral goes back some decades, dating at least to Sundarji’s famous ‘Brother Officer’ DO. Rahul Bedi, a keen military watcher, observes in The Hindu, that the moral fabric began to erode beginning with the upgradation of military ranks in the early eighties.

Allegations of declining standards have persisted with each successive generation of officers being compared less favourably with the preceding one. Friction has been known to exist between the KCIOs and ICOs, the pre-war and war commission, the pre and post Independence commission, the post Independence and the Emergency Commission etc.

Essentially, those with plebian antecedents have replaced those with privileged backgrounds. In the cliché, ‘Officer and Gentleman’, the trend has been towards professionalism in the ‘Officer’ and away from character and conduct signified by the term, ‘Gentleman’.

Inroads made into the warrior ethic are due to three factors. Firstly, the Army has been relentlessly involved in counter insurgency operations and in several crisis points since the mid eighties. Internal security operations permit considerable autonomy to the military and an extensive interface with the non-military environment. Expansion entailed by deployment on disputed borders, coupled with changing doctrine towards proactive defence and expanding internal security demands, have increased the ‘mass’ of the Army. This conspires against sustaining quality within the Service and quality control at entry. Belief that the military can handle problems precludes urgency in wrapping these up by other organs of government, either externally or internally. This betrays a lack of understanding of the military instrument by the bureaucrat aided civilian leadership.

Secondly, the growing economy has led to an appreciation deficit in the military. The perception is that the growth owes to stability provided by the military, but compensation in terms of remuneration received has not been commensurate. The military continues to remain outside the policy and decision loop due to a cosmetic delegation of powers to the Integrated Headquarters of the Ministry. The values of society having changed, the military would be subject to peer pressure from without. This has considerably been eased by the Sixth Pay Commission award, but only after the Brass had to stretch out in an unseemly manner. The hold up over the OROP (One Rank One Pension) is vicariously felt by the military.

Thirdly, the Army’s internal policies could do with a constructive critique. It has countenanced initiatives of questionable worth such as expansion in all directions, making for more ‘Chiefs than I’njuns’. Discipline and service traditions can only go so far in socializing its members. Being a mass military, there is greater difficulty in having a warrior culture override the preexisting and pervasive social influences. Now the Army is set to bring about a caste system in the officer corps in terms of upwardly mobile long serving cadre and a supporting short service cadre as Phase III of the AV Singh recommendations. Yet the social fallout has not been discussed. Absorbing change such as the Army’s Transformation initiative cannot be sensibly commented on since its contours have - despite the Age of Information - been kept off scrutiny.

What is the Army already doing? A report this week has it that the Army has jettisoned its quantification-reliant assessment system. This made points obtained in confidential reports consequential for promotion. In a liberalizing economy, upward mobility that enabled keeping up with peers outside the service was dependent on promotions, predicated on tenanting command responsibilities. This accounted for vulnerability of officers being held hostage to a senior’s priorities. Ambition, that usually drives sharp practice, has utility in pushing up men with drive and encouraging innovation. Where combat ‘friction’ has to be overcome with the exercise of ‘will’, a ‘can do’ officer is useful. In a force transiting from a traditional leadership culture to a managerial ethic, the quality is not necessarily negative. However, character was no longer the referent, managerial effectiveness was. An ‘occupational’ ethic has replaced the ‘institutional’, as observed by the doyen of military sociologists, late Charles Moskos, in other militaries. The Army is rightly beginning with reforming its promotion policies.

In-service measures such as increasing the vacancies for benchmark career courses, such as the National Defence College and the Higher Command courses, leveling out the playing field for the graduates of war colleges and Defence Management etc are useful measures. The culture of command is changing to a more democratic and transformational style of leadership. Collegiate, staff-driven policy and decision making is being encouraged. This helps detach self-esteem needs of individuals from being overly determined by rank. Additionally, the pressure of upward mobility stands diluted by the Sixth Pay Commission award. The AV Singh Committee report’s implementation of its first two phases has increased numbers in higher ranks. This implies that emoluments continue to accrue irrespective of promotion, reducing any need for sharp practices. Further, the expanding economy indicates that there is a life after service.

What more needs doing? Firstly, the fixation on ‘image’ needs dilution. This builds a tendency to paper over problems. It is the onus of the military leadership to manage consequences on morale of action taken against erring military members. This must go beyond corruption into the domain of the military’s relative autonomy, for instance, human rights matters in counter insurgency.

Secondly, peer disapproval has proven an insufficient deterrent for those overstepping privileges. Privileges have been confused with entitlement. Undue impositions on the system for personal requirements need to be curbed. Corruption begins in misuse of manpower, the Army’s chief resource.

Thirdly, in case the One Rank One Pension is acceded to by the government, the understandable attractions of rank would remain only for those aspiring to it for the right reasons.

Fourthly, the Ministry’s archaic structure of relying on less than a score administrators leads to misapplied autonomy and omissions, not only in the military, but as is increasingly evident, in other departments as estates and audit. Second generation reforms of the apex structure are overdue.

The embarrassing juncture can be an opportunity for renewal for the military with the understanding and indulgence of the nation.