You are here

The central debate in India’s civil military relations

Ali Ahmed was Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
  • Share
  • Tweet
  • Email
  • Whatsapp
  • Linkedin
  • Print
  • July 06, 2009

    Critics have it that the last bout of reforms in India’s defence sector in the wake of Kargil has not been taken to its logical conclusion. There are two key areas over which there is considerable debate. One is the continuing absence of a Chief of Defence Staff, and the second is the cosmetic integration between the Ministry of Defence and the Service Headquarters. It is asserted that the latter is the result of bureaucrats protecting their turf in a perverse interpretation of civil control. While the military prefers political control exercised by politicians, the intervening bureaucratic layer between the brass and the political leadership results in ‘bureaucratic control’.

    It is acknowledged that India’s military has historically been apolitical. Unlike other militaries in developing countries early in the post colonial period, there has never been an instance of the Indian military transgressing its bounds. This has consistently been among the indicators of India’s democratic good health. However, it is averred that this has resulted in the military’s marginalisation in core security decision making structures and processes. This refrain in security studies commentary testifies to the continuing distance between the apex military leadership from political decision makers on policy issues. Details of the critique are well known. These include: the strategic grasp of the generalist bureaucratic cadre dominating the ministry is suspect; in modern defence systems elsewhere officials in uniform share desk space with civilians having appropriate background in national security; the current system results in manipulation of service differences by bureaucrats playing arbiters, thereby precluding efficiencies, jointness, etc. But the fact that the system persists begs the question: Why?

    Firstly, at the general level, it is attributed to a tightening grip of the ‘steel frame’ over the governmental sphere that has not been subject to post-liberalisation deregulation. Secondly, the merit in the system is perhaps that the bureaucrats, with a greater grasp of India’s developmental needs, are better able to keep a restrictive check. In the absence of such a check, inadvertent militarisation would result. Thirdly, ministerial attention spans are of necessity limited. For a balancing opinion on the military perspective, they require inputs from their civilian staff, itself mandated by the rules of procedure to furnish a frank opinion. Bringing in a fair consideration of pros and cons in this manner leads to better policy and decision making. Fourthly, officer education leaves military professionals narrowly, if highly, qualified for tactical and operational levels of combat. Running a ministry is a wholly different, administrative, exercise that the military training and rotation system does not easily lend itself to. Fifthly, there is no restriction on the brass taking up issues with the political head, best demonstrated by their piloting of amendments to the Sixth Pay Commission award. They are represented in all committees, with the Chiefs being part of the Strategic Policy Group of the National Security Council and can be invited to meetings of the Cabinet Committee on Security. Lastly, there would occur role conflict, with the military-bureaucrat in an integrated ministry required to pass judgement on cases initiated by the parent service.

    Vociferous counter arguments exist. It is argued that as has happened in countries with advanced national security systems in place, the military can learn or forced to adapt by the political leadership. Training, drawdown of inter-service competition and an unbiased ethos would result over time. In any case, the demerits of the current system outweigh the merits. These include the more compelling issue of lack of strategic direction by the ministry owing to its strategic incapacity. For instance, a draft of the National Security Strategy forwarded by the Head Quarters Integrated Defence Staff is still awaiting clearance of the ministry. It is believed that this results in a weakening of India’s deterrence posture. A coherent response to the emerging challenge of China would also in this perspective require ‘fusionism’ at the apex. Continuing security challenges at the sub-conventional plane and the nuclear overhang over conventional conflict further necessitate an integrated approach to national security with appropriate structural and process changes.

    The moot question however is whether, and to what extent, the state of affairs in South Block is attributable to bureaucratic politics alone. In case, as in the arguments recounted here, this is so to a considerable extent, it is amenable to correction through appropriate political intervention. However, the debate misses out on a key factor. Votaries of change believe that India’s power maximisation, required for meeting current and growing security threats, is being hampered by inadequacies in civil military relations. This commentary argues that it is a political choice to retain current military power indices and the pace of its accretion. This is being adequately delivered by the system in place and therefore there is no compelling need for immediate changes. While not averse to change, in the Indian political conception, the timing is equally important and India would cross the bridge at an appropriate juncture.

    Political India is better connected to the Indian reality. It is aware of India’s reality being one of scarcity. Therefore, the grand strategy in the post liberalisation era has been one of ‘growth with equity’. While India has done credibly with respect to growth, more is required in terms of spreading the benefits. Therefore, a continuing period of growth, internal consolidation and creation of a viable delivery system are required. The verdict of the electorate in the recent elections testifies to this agenda. India should therefore maintain the current course. While national security is crucial in this endeavour, an integrated ministry and resulting salience of the military perspective could skew the developmental agenda. At an extreme, instead of civilianising the military, civilian militarism could result.

    More tangibly, the ‘relaxed’ strategic posture that critics rile against has the advantage of averting the security dilemma in neighbours. In case of overt power maximisation by India, theirs would be a predictable response. For instance, current commentary on Chinese military presence in Tibet and unfriendly stances has prompted the prescription that India urgently undertake appropriate military steps, ranging from building roads in Arunachal to operationalising its strategic deterrent. Though the threat is acknowledged, in the development-first approach, the sense of urgency is whittled so as to hold steady and not precipitate a Chinese over-reaction. The latter would in turn impact upon Indian security calculus, resulting in a further departure from the developmental agenda. Since India requires at least a decade without distraction to improve its developmental record and human developmental indices, deferring India’s great power ambition, and its precursor in the form of further defence reforms, is politically desirable.

    This philosophical contestation has not been articulated in the discourse on the military-bureaucrat stand-off so far. Since India’s national security doctrine is not available as a written document or white paper, the rationale that could be driving Indian policy has been divined here. At the heart of the central debate would appear to be a conceptual difference. While the critics prefer ‘prosperity through peace’, status-quoists privilege ‘peace through prosperity’. Absence of movement on further defence reforms, to the chagrin of critics, suggests adjudication by the political class in favour of the status quo. Since determining the national interest is a political call, defence reforms must await the future. But the critics could well respond that by then it would be somewhat late.