In a democracy, the military is subordinate to the political authority. Civil Military relations (CMR) are however not a given. They have to be assiduously cultivated to ensure that the nation gets a well oiled fighting machine to preserve its security interests. A dissonance in the relationship could compromise national security, as was witnessed in the wake of the 1962 conflict with China. In the Indian context, CMR suffers from contextual weaknesses, which have exacerbated over time. Political authority continues to be mistaken for control by civilian bureaucrats, which creates avoidable friction. The civilian establishment wields power without accountability and the military has responsibility without power, – a dangerous cocktail should danger threaten. How then should CMR be structured in the Indian context?
As a general principle, a fine balance needs to be maintained between the military and the civilian leadership. In the words of Samuel Huntington, ‘objective civilian control must limit the authority of the military to matters military but also requires self-limiting by civilians to stay out of the military realm’. Many variations to the above theme have been written about, and each country ultimately has to settle in a mould best suited to its needs. Civilian control of the military is not about ‘keeping the military in its place’, as espoused by some commentators in India. It is more about intelligent outreach by the political authority, predicated on the development of a very nuanced set of skill sets. Differences in perception cannot be peppered over, but would require skilled and deft handling. As an example, in the United States, since World War II, seventy eight documented instances of major conflicts between the civilian and military leadership, each with its own set of drivers and consequences have been recorded. Through introspection and dialogue, however, substantive reforms were affected. This would be hard to accomplish in India, where dissonance in CMR is kept under wraps, and the constant refrain is that ‘the system has done well and, therefore, must be preserved.’ Preservation of the status quo is simply a means to preserving self interest and that remains a cause for worry.
Excessive control promotes a deeply divided and supine military leadership which does not serve the nation’s interests well as the 1962 episode showed. We obviously do not need a pliant military leadership, but that is what the existing system promotes. In contrast, CMR in the US are robust and flourish, largely because the political executive, Congress and the Armed Forces, aided by strategic think-tanks and sections of the academia and media have consistently engaged and wrestled vigorously on strategic and military issues. There were differences in perception and at times periods of stress, but on the whole, the structures in the US led to evolutionary changes in the relationship. In India, civilian control is overly tight, barely utilitarian and rarely induces change. The system operates in structural stovepipes, with the Services, having limited if any interaction with the political authority. This needs to change. We need to develop a culture of informed dissent, both within the military and in the mi l i t a r y-pol i t i c a l -bure auc ra t i c interface. Encouraging a timid military may be good for civilian ego trips, but equally, shows poor strategic sense. Neither is, ‘distancing from military working’ the answer. CMR thus have to be made vibrant and functional, which would necessitate major reforms in the system.
As of now, CMR in India can at best be described as barely tolerable, though key decision makers live in deniability of the fact. Some state that CMR in India has being successful citing the fact that India has had no history of military takeovers. That is a weak argument and is hardly a cause for cheer. It has more to do with the apolitical nature of the Armed Forces than the strength of the CMR. On the contrary, strained relations have impacted adversely on military preparedness and the strategic decision-making process. it is this lack of a consultative process that has led to the present impasse, where veterans have been forced to go to the streets to
fight for their legitimate rights. That is not a flattering image for the state of CMR in India.
We need widespread reforms and we need them urgently. The central issue remains integrating the armed forces with the civilian framework, to address dissonance. This is resisted by the bureaucracy, which feels its power base will erode. At the same time, none in the bureaucracy are prepared to accept responsibility for any shortcomings in defence preparedness. From the Defence Secretary, who as per the law is responsible for the Defence of India and the Secretary Defence Finance, who holds the purse strings, none are responsible for their acts of omission or commission. The Forces, in resigned acceptance, now work around the obstacles, as the bureaucracy is seen as obstructionist. Using civilian control as a lever, the bureaucracy has arrogated to itself a gargantuan role – one that is rooted neither in prevalent theories nor in the many models that are in practice around the globe. The resultant skew has given fillip to a bureaucratic system which seeks to exercise control over the military by isolating soldiers from their political masters through a layered labyrinth.
To restore the equilibrium in CMR, we need to correct the prevalent distortion by constraining the civil bureaucracy and liberating the armed forces from the clutches of bureaucratic control. As per established tenets and global practices, the civilian principal remains the political leadership and legislative oversight. The civil bureaucracy was never conceived as a principal in this equation. It has arrogated for itself that role, much like the Pakistan Army has unilaterally taken upon itself the role of defender of Pakistan’s ideological frontiers. The analogy is not too far fetched as the Indian Bureaucracy exercises the same vice like grip over the political establishment as the Pakistan military does in Pakistan. The difference is only in levels of subtlety.
The first step in reform is creating a two tiered structure. The top tier composed of the political authority and the next of the agents – both military and civil bureaucracy, responsible to the principals. We cannot have a three tiered structure as at present existing, with the military at the third rung. It makes little sense to painstakingly and assiduously build a military organisation and combat ethic in the first place and then proceed to trample its very institutional strengths with layers and layers of bureaucracy. In the US, the Secretary of Defence (Defence Minister) is advised by a Military assistant and a Civilian assistant, both with equal access and authority, thus, providing the necessary balance in advice and perspective in matters of national security.In the Indian context, while there is no denying the fact thatthe civilian bureaucracy in the MoD, headed by the Defence Secretary, is a vital element in the higher management of defence, encompassing as it does the wider ambit of defence functions – defence finance, Research and Development, defence production and the like, there is also no escaping the fact that by clever positioning and manipulation ofthe rules of business and file processes, the power equation in the MoD is greatly skewed in favour of the civilian bureaucracy. That by itself is not a great disaster, but the resultant skew results in the political leadership receiving sub–optimal and stilted bureaucratic advice, with adverse security repercussions. If the decision making polity is so configured that the military dimension is not adequately integrated and specialist military decisions are taken by a generalist bureaucracy on its behalf, it is only natural that the quality of those decisions will lack in military robustness.
A direct interface permits the political authority to ask their military searching questions, while being equally responsive to their needs. The sheer logic of institutional performance of the Indian armed forces must be also considered. The nation has a positive image of its armed forces, largely based on its performance. That by itself is adequate reason for greater inclusivity of the Forces in the decision making process, especially when it comes to matters of national security. Allied with this is the role think tanks can play. The US, Britain, China and even tiny Singapore have well developed security related think tanks which provide policy inputs to the decision makers. We lack on that score as a result of which our best brains are constrained to work in foreign think tanks. This brain drain too needs to be reversed, which will permit a healthier and more nuanced debate on security matters. The issue of the Chief of Defence Staff is one such issue. While such an appointment will be a valuable top down driver, if appointed, the real issue remains integration of the military in the entire decision making dynamic.
In the US, an operationally empowered Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff not only brought to politico–military decision making a strong operational dynamic, but also helped in removing sloth across the military establishment, resulting in suchoutstanding military successes such as Operations Desert storm, enduring Freedom and Iraqi freedom. In the Indian context, defence integration could do for the defence establishment, what economic liberalisation did to India in 1990. If India is seeking its place in the sun, a strong economy has to go hand in hand with a strong military. Integration at the apex level is hence a necessity to achieve the synergies required for exploiting the revolution in military affairs and the advances being made in the realms of space, and cyber space.
Within the polity, a strategic culture needs to develop, which can be aided by well endowed think tanks. As of now, even the annual defence expenditure is passed in a cursory manner, as little understanding exists of such matters. This must change. The think tanks can also bring a fresh perspective to the way we see and analyse conflict and can throw up valuable insights into potential global challenges, improving acquisition procedures, looking into aspects of defence production and the like. Greater representation of the military in the strategic landscape will also pay handsome dividends.
The Armed Forces too, need to introspect. Despite having fought innumerable wars since Independence and a continual engagement in sub conventional conflict, its leadership remains tactical in thought orientation. In the words of Professor Gautam Sen, India’s military leadership has “tacticised strategy”. The military thus needs to develop a strategic culture and encourage the intellectual tradition,that produces soldiers of the stature of General David Petraeus, whom the american Defence Secretary Robert Gates has acknowledged on more occasion than one as a “soldier–statesman.” In the absence of a cultural construct, this appears an uphill task, as the process requires a large number of senior leaders with a strategic bent of mind, but they are as of now a rare commodity. More tragically, such endeavours are not encouraged, with even a former Army Chief who retired recently, proclaiming in an open forum that creating a strategic culture within the Forces was not needed. How then can we develop leaders of vision and calibre? We consistently produce brilliant battalion commanders, but few exhibit the strategic foresight when they don the Generals rank. There is also a visible decline in the military ethic and the apparent bureaucratisation of the military, with some officers making peace with the powerful bureaucracy and getting subsumed by its byzantine ways. Change will be difficult to come by, but it must be pursued with religious zeal.
What then needs to be done? There is clearly a need for a different narrative, in which both the Military leadership and bureaucrat move towards a more secure relationship, premised on proximate and direct political control of the military as against the current mechanism of bureaucratic control. As a step in that direction, integration of the MoD must not simply be a matter of placing one or two officers in the Ministry and claiming that integration has been achieved. Both the military and civil officers have to work closely and jointly, in every level of the decision making process to make it work. Resistance would have to eliminated by political authority, by summarily removing all obstructionists, regardless of who they might be. Once political will is displayed, the rest will fall in line. In office functioning, the pernicious double file system must go. Advice rendered to the Defence Minister must be on a single file, with inputs from both the military and the bureaucracy. Independent consultants must also be brought in to drive critical processessuch as acquisitions.within the MoD, authority, responsibility and accountability must be comprehensively reviewed, with substantial delegation of powers to Service Chiefs, especially with respect to their allocated budget and made entirely responsible for operational plans and equipment.
The next step must then be the establishment of a Permanent Chairman, Joint Chiefs of staff as the Principal Military adviser to the government (or alternately the CDS with a similar role). It would be up to this appointment to drive the process of jointmanship within the services, and be a bridge between the strategic and operational level of planning. He should also be part of the policy making loop in the key national security organisations.
The CCS must carry out a National Security Strategy Review, a Strategic Defence and Security review and a Defence Review, in that chronological order but with the express purpose of one complementing the other, with clearly enunciated remits. The National Security Strategy Review must sketch out a whole of Government approach to security. From this must flow the Strategic Defence and Security Review, to arrive at the precise capabilities that India needs to invest in. Finally, the Defence Review must focus on the management, structure, organisation, process and work culture in the MoD with the specific purpose of delivering those precise capabilities. The aim should be the creation of hard power capabilities, that provides viable strategic options in crisis situations and also enhance the credibility of India’s strategic restraint as a carefully chosen alternative.
committees from time to time will lead to institutional equity and will eventually pave the way for strategic acuity. For too long has the political class detached itself from the military, giving way to the bureaucracy to push the military out of the decision making loop. The balance needs to be restored now, based on the twin principles of unambiguous political control and intelligent outreach. We are in the process of achieving our rightful place in the comity of nations. a revitalised CMR can only add to India’s power capability and its execution must be facilitated at the earliest.
Acknowledgement: The major portion of this article has been extracted from Centre For Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS) Manekshaw Paper No. 36, 2012, “Civil Military Relations in India”, by Brig Raj Shukla (now Maj Gen.)