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The Absent Dialogue: Civil-Military Relations and Military Effectiveness in India

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  • May 13, 2011
    Fellows' Seminar

    Chairperson: Narendra Sisodia (DG, IDSA)
    Discussants: P.S. Das, Vice Admiral (retd.), Dhirendra Singh (IAS), Prof. Rajesh Rajgopalan (JNU)

    This paper examines civil-military relations in India and argues that it has an adverse impact on the country’s military effectiveness. Anit Mukherjee introduced the paper by trying to situate Indian civil-military relations in the theoretical construct and argued that it most closely resembles Huntington’s “objective control”. However, he argued, that contrary to Huntington’s claim, objective control does not maximize military effectiveness, thus questioning the Huntingtonian paradigm. The author argued that the unique characteristics of Indian civil-military relations qualify it to be best described as an “absent dialogue.” In making this argument, the paper examines four processes that shape military effectiveness – weapons procurement, defense planning, integration and officer education, and promotion policies. The paper starts by posing some questions; “what are the causes and consequences of the form of civilian control in contemporary India, in response to internal and external challenges, how have civil-military relations evolved and what have been the major areas of contestation, and finally why has the government undertaken episodic reforms aimed at streamlining the military and to what extent are these reforms successful?”

    The paper is composed of three sections. Section one, begins by discussing the theory of civil-military relations. Next it describes the three unique characteristics of civil-military relations in India. (Lack of civilian expertise, strong but competing bureaucratic control over the military and considerable autonomy granted to the military to compensate for the previous two factors.) According to K. Subrahmanyam the “absent dialogue” directly translates into a system where “politicians enjoy power without any responsibility, bureaucrats wield power without any accountability and the military assumes responsibility without any direction.”

    Section two describes the study of military effectiveness and the problems associated with defining it. It then analyzes Indian military effectiveness by examining four crucial determinants - weapons procurement, defence planning, integration and officer education, and promotion policies. In doing so, it examines how each of these determinants is influenced by civil-military relations.

    Section three argues that the Indian state has acknowledged these problems and has made some attempts at defence reforms; however, a more forceful political intervention is required, if the reforms have to be meaningful. The paper ends by noting that “in the absence of a crisis such sort of an intervention is unlikely”. The paper concludes that in the absence of a strong political will and leadership defense reforms have had “sub-optimal results”.

    External Discussants

    Mr. Dhirendra Singh suggested that the paper should be restructured in a manner so as to effectively use the historical facts given in the paper about how the civil-military relationship has evolved over a period of time in the Indian context, to buttress claims about the problem areas in civil-military relations. He also suggested that the author should come up with solutions to the problem of the bureaucracy’s control over the military. He said that the author’s approach is ambivalent on the issue of lack of expertise in the bureaucracy: if we have adopted a generalist cadre system, then how can we blame the bureaucracy for not ‘expertly’ guiding the military, particularly on issues where there is a lack of consensus in the armed forces themselves. Singh also made the pertinent point that the question of civil-military integration should be looked into within the constitutional arrangement of the country and here the understanding of the Articles 74 and 77 becomes very important.

    Vice-Admiral PS Das’s remarks were not so much on the paper as on the existing realities which he experienced during his various key postings. Significantly, he said that publishing the Henderson-Brook report (on the 1962 India-China war) will not expose politicians or bureaucrats since their failure has already been established. It will, however, help the military in course-correction. Yet, the political establishment is reluctant to publish the report, much to the disillusionment of many. He cautioned against nurturing the belief that all politicians and bureaucrats are inept and cited the examples of Jagjivan Ram, Yashwant Rao Chavan, Arun Singh, Ajai Vikram Singh, and others. Das said that we need to take some corrective measures and not aim at radical changes. He made some valuable suggestions including, the need for complete control of defence forces over their revenue matters and the expediency of higher education for the officers.

    Prof. Rajesh Rajgopalan said that Grand Strategy has two components - force and diplomacy. We never paid enough attention to the force component and hence a lot is left to be desired on this count. He pointed out that India has a huge “margin of error” in the military sphere vis-à-vis its neighbours. Prof. Rajgopalan said that what India has is “ineffective” civilian control over the military because of the former’s lack of expertise.

    Internal Discussants

    Col. Ali Ahmed pointed out that Huntington never said that objective control will lead to military effectiveness. In fact, Huntington has not used the term “effectiveness” anywhere in his seminal work, The Soldier and the State. So Anit Mukherjee’s criticism of Huntington on the ground that contrary to Huntington’s claim “objective control” does not maximize India’s military effectiveness is not justified since what Huntington meant was objective control will lead to military “professionalism”, and that has happened in India.

    This issue was taken further by Anit who opined that although it is true that Huntington did not use the term effectiveness, yet he never differed with later scholars who followed his work and treated “effectiveness” as a benchmark of the professionalism of the armed forces, since the concept of effectiveness was not developed at that point in time when Huntington wrote his book. Moreover, the study of civil-military relations assumes that objective control would lead to professionalism and automatically an effective military.

    Cdr. SS Parmar said that any scheme of higher education for the armed forces must include the JCOs, the backbone of the Indian Armed Forces.

    General Discussion

    Several comments and suggestions were made in terms of the paper being a framework analysis of Civil-military relations in India.

    • Wg Cdr. V. Krishnappa – “Dialogue” part of the title should be made more pronounced. The paper will then become more policy-relevant.
    • Amit Cowshish (IDAS) – differences of opinion and attitude between the civil and military is primarily due to the different sets of ethos that they adhere to. He also clarified the stance of the Ministry of Finance on revenue matters and said that substantial delegation of revenue matters of defence has already been done to it.
    • Brig. Dahiya said that victories in wars should not be the final judgment on the efficacy of the military, a point aptly made by Anit in his paper. Suggestion was to prepare the list of military failures and the reason for the failures to assess the problem areas facing the armed forces vis-à-vis the civil administration.

    Chairperson’s Remarks

    The Director General said that the paper will definitely bring to the centre stage the debate on “civil-military relations” in India. He, however, lamented that in India this debate deteriorates into a “tussle between bureaucracy and military”. Defending the bureaucracy, he said that the Secretaries are the staff of ministers. So it logically follows that the voice of the secretary is not his own, rather it is the wish of the minister echoed by him. He provided an insight into the functioning of civil-military relations based on his experience as a rapporteur for Cabinet meetings. His observation was that whenever there was a consensus in the military over a certain issue, the cabinet invariably gave its nod for it. The problem arose only when there was no consensus on the issue among the armed forces themselves. He said that the political leadership agreed with the military leadership more frequently than it did so with the civilian bureaucracy, underlining the point that the armed forces have enjoyed considerable autonomy in their functioning. He stressed the need for democratization of the educational system of the military. He concluded by saying that the generalist system which has come under scrutiny by the author is all right, but specialization in some areas should also be encouraged to facilitate smooth functioning of the MoD.

    Further Reading

    Report prepared by Amit Kumar, Research Assistant, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi