A recent book speaks to the absent dialogue in India’s civil and military relations

Bipin Rawat, the current chief of defence staff, at the Defence Investiture Ceremony, on 14 March 2019, in Delhi. It remains to be seen whether the creation of the office of the chief of defence staff, with Rawat as the first CDS appointed at the end of last year, will address or exacerbate the problem of inter-service lobbying and factionalism. Arvind Yadav / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
31 July, 2020

In 2019, India spent 2.4 percent of its gross domestic product, amounting to $71.1 billion, on its military. This year, India was the third-largest military spender in the world after the United States and China. India also remained the second-largest importer of arms between 2015 and 2019, resulting in a massive outflow of foreign exchange.  

India has a large, varied air force and a substantial navy, equipped with the latest weapons, including an aircraft carrier. If we draw a historical parallel, contemporary India could be compared to Tsarist Russia in 1914, in the sense that it is a major military power but a poor country with an indolent bureaucracy, which is ruled by largely pro-rich politicians. Since 1962, as Indian military expenditure began to rise substantially, those in power in India have spent a great fortune on making the country militarily secure from external and, increasingly, internal threats. Most of these “internal threats” have been produced by the several political and economic failures of the Indian state. 

In addition to the accumulation of military hardware, special laws have been passed, starting as early as 1958, to give the army a free hand in curbing existing and “potential” insurgencies in large parts of a country that claims to take pride in its democracy. The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, 1958 is used in many districts of the country, but particularly so in Kashmir and Manipur. Time and again, the Indian Army has opposed the dilution of the draconian AFSPA, and politicians have given in to the military. The army also enjoys a hallowed place in India’s popular imagination, which, in turn, is stoked by ultra-nationalism and the media’s adulation of olive green and khaki uniforms. 

Despite this formidable social support for the Indian armed forces, Anit Mukherjee’s The Absent Dialogue: Politicians, Bureaucrats, and the Military in India, a recently published book on civil–military relations in India, asserts that the Indian military lacks “effectiveness.” Mukherjee’s main hypothesis is twofold. He claims that the military, politicians and bureaucrats occupy different silos. Because of this domain separation, a fruitful interaction between the civil and military parts of the Indian state does not take place. The author’s exasperation with the “absent dialogue” that blights Indian military effectiveness becomes the running theme of this book. Whether such dialogues have yielded military efficacy in other countries, and whether this efficacy has translated into military victory, is a big historical question that this book does not answer satisfactorily. Military historians know that there is no working model of military efficacy and their understanding of the concept inclines them towards particular historical moments rather than specified politico-military arrangements.

Informed by “more than one hundred and fifty interviews, many of them repeated, with high-ranking officials” and a source cache of primary and secondary sources, this book is the culmination of a competent doctoral dissertation. It has eight chapters, excluding a short introduction and conclusion. They deal with diverse but related topics, such as civil–military relations in India since the times of Jawaharlal Nehru; the weapons-procurement process; the issue of “Jointness”—a neologism coined by the US military to describe cross-service cooperations in military processes; professional military education in India; promotion policy; defence planning in India and the “Contemporary Discourse on Civil-Military Relations.” The overall strength of the book is that it manages to weave together an argument despite the serious limitations faced by military researchers in India. 

In contemporary historical research in India, especially for the period post 1950, the salience of primary documentary evidence can hardly be over-emphasised. If this evidence is denied to researchers, despite the use of right-to-information queries, as Mukherjee points out, they are left with no choice but to fall back on a synthesis of oral history, media and selected books and articles. Mukherjee argues:

A major research limitation has been the absence of declassification procedures in the Indian military. Therefore, it is difficult to access primary documents pertaining to military procedures and processes. As a result, the research has benefited from what has “slipped through” – in either the collection of personal papers or observations by foreign observers … This callous approach of the MoD and the armed forces to this issue severely inhibits the development of strategic studies in India and ought to be urgently remedied.

Since the military does not promote an atmosphere conducive to historical and strategic research, it is presumed that researchers, who could act as bridges in civil–military interactions, belong to civil society. Without a robust civil society, no democracy is possible. Whether the classification, or even the destruction, of military evidence is compatible with democracy is a question the military establishment and politicians must answer, but as matters stand today it is clear that, as Mukherjee states, there is “a considerable mistrust between civilians and the military.” 

Mukherjee, a former army officer and currently an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, has marshalled his sources deftly to arrive at a pessimistic conclusion in the introduction itself. We are told that the absent dialogue will continue into the future and “civil-military relations in India will continue to be problematic.” Indian military historians are all too familiar with the “structural research limitation” their vocation confronts in India because of the “Indian government’s immature approach to declassification.” In the early 1990s, for instance, when I was a doctoral student, I was denied some documents related to the Indian National Army—a nearly 50,000-strong army formed with the help of Japanese forces—that were kept in sealed cupboards in an archive in Delhi. The Indian army claimed that the colonial-era documents were still classified.

It is important to study “jointness” in any analysis of military effectiveness, and to understand the limitations of structural “silos” in search of a dialogue between the civil and military spheres in a democracy. Nonetheless, the limitations of this hypothetically attractive binary must also be underlined to arrive at a different conclusion: despite our best intentions, neither optimum civil–military relations nor a stable military effectiveness may ever be obtained by a country. Stable military effectiveness may be attained by a country in specific historical situations, but history displays the ability of unmanageable military conditions to develop as a consequence of policies executed with strategic planning. Jointness may be difficult to achieve in a democracy because democracy itself is always in transition—the deepening of democracy means a reduced military presence in society, and the weakening of democracy implies less civilian interference in military affairs. Both situations do not make for a happy civil–military relationship and consequently “jointness” suffers.

Matters also become complicated because the silos themselves comprise internally divided houses. In this connection, serious intra-service and inter-service differences come into play. Mukherjee displays awareness of such differences, which weaken the case against the civilians who are themselves disunited along political and bureaucratic lines. He notes that within the army, there is much disagreement between the infantry, the armoured corps and the artillery regiment in matters of seniority and staff appointments. Add funding to the picture, and it becomes more complicated. Things may appear normal to the uninformed citizen, but, Mukherjee writes, “considerable tensions between these ‘tribes’ within the Army” exist.

It was always known that senior staff appointments in the Indian Army were influenced by the political inclinations of leaders and parties in power. In this sense, these appointments can never be purely professional. A military that is proud of its professionalism may dislike such civilian interference in promotion matters, but such professionalism itself is rarely found in history. Aggrieved officers have sought judicial intervention in the rectification of actual, or perceived, wrongs done to them for a long time. In 2006, matters rose to a new level when the former chief of army staff VK Singh’s date of birth became a controversial issue, over which he finally approached the Supreme Court “only to be rebuffed,” as Mukherjee states. It seems that during his tenure as army chief, a “series of steps were taken against his perceived enemies.” This brought the acclaimed professionalism of the army into serious disrepute. “These controversies brought into open the factionalism prevalent within senior officers of the Indian Army,” Mukherjee writes. “But it also revealed the autonomy and the powers concentrated in the office of the service chief.”

It remains to be seen whether the creation of the office of the Chief of Defence Staff, with Bipin Rawat as the first CDS appointed at the end of last year, will address or exacerbate the problem of inter-service lobbying and factionalism. From now on, the route to the defence ministry and the prime minister’s office will run through the CDS office. The incumbent will hold this pivotal office for three years, ostensibly to promote inter-service coordination in the interest of national military efficacy, but it is unclear whether the CDS silo will achieve this or become a hotbed of lobbying. The office will, in any case, be coveted as a sinecure by a military chief approaching retirement. The air force and navy are hardly immune to controversy either. In this context, the 1997–98 crisis in the Indian Air Force, caused by resentful divisions between flight and ground crews, has been recounted in Mukherjee’s book. Officer promotions in the IAF have also generated much heat in the service, courts and media in the recent past. 

While the perception that civilians do not appreciate military expertise is quite popular, it is not necessarily true. Most reputed Indian military historians, for example, are civilians who are usually not taken seriously by the military establishment. Many Indian foreign- and strategic-policy experts are civilians, and these too must be heard seriously by the politicians and the military. This book demonstrates that “there is a lack of consensus between civilians and the military and even within the military” over matters such as proposed reforms. It is a different matter that, in a scenario where dialogue is absent, both sides can strike sanctimonious poses and a synergy between civilians and military fails to develop.

In recent years the military grouse against the civilian government has spilled into electoral politics, and military issues have increasingly become electoral issues. The One Rank One Pension policy, a longstanding demand from the armed forces for equal pensions for all military personnel of the same rank, was made a major political issue by the Bharatiya Janata Party in September 2013, months before a general election. Consequently, according to Mukherjee, numerous senior retired military officers joined the BJP, considering it India’s only “nationalist party.” The BJP election manifesto of 2014 promised several military reforms, including greater military participation in the “decision-making process of the Ministry of Defence.” Such attractive promises raised military hopes in India, and large numbers of veterans, some of them vocally strident in the media, supported the BJP. However, the promises appeared to be inflated. Mukherjee concludes that “no substantive organizational reforms” have been undertaken by the Narendra Modi government, and “the BJP was learning that making promises was easier than delivering on them.” 

“Why did a so-called nationalist party with a self-professed strong affiliation with and appreciation of the military fail to undertake reforms to ameliorate problems in civil-military relations?” Mukherjee asks. This question, he writes, “requires more research” because it impinges on something deeply structural—but, naturally, such research is difficult to undertake. Mukherjee suggests that recurring leadership changes in the defence ministry may have reduced the impetus for reforms. In Mukherjee’s final analysis, he concludes that structural reforms did not materialise because: 

Modi himself was ambivalent about defense reforms. Early in his tenure, Modi claimed that this was an ‘area of priority’ for him; however, according to some officials who worked closely with him, he was unable to find agents to transform his vision into reality. To some this was a failure of senior leadership—both civilian and military—to deliver on the prime minister’s vision. Others argue that Modi’s ties with the senior military leadership soured after the OROP agitation. 

Books on civil–military relations are incomplete without three things. To begin with, they must provide a detailed historical analysis of these relations in the country being researched. Second, the character of these relations must be placed in a comparative framework. This means testing a hypothesis on the anvil of a workable model of such a civil–military dialogue. Finally, a politically relevant and prescriptive conclusion based on the above two should emerge from the study. The question of what is to be done in India should be answered by a study such as this.

This book is not a comparative history of military effectiveness. A definition of military effectiveness, based on the works of historians such as Allan Millett, Williamson Murray and Kenneth Watman, is cobbled together by the author, and alternate models of military efficacy evident in the Vietnam War, and in the Chinese resistance to Japanese occupation during the Second World War, have been ignored. Nonetheless the limitation of these modular definitions is accepted because of the realisation that “there is no academic consensus on the ‘proper’ role of civilians in military affairs or the ‘preferred’ level of autonomy for the military.” The author’s absent dialogue is particularly vocal in a democracy that tries to combine an effective autonomous military with strong civilian control over military affairs.

India’s case is peculiar, because Indian politicians lack expertise on military matters, to say the least. Only one percent of the members of parliament in the Sixteenth Lok Sabha, between 2014 and 2019, had military experience and were “therefore unable to have an informed debate or question the actions of the executive.” From this, can we infer that the absent dialogue would materialise if more veterans become members of parliament and ministers? Are veterans more erudite than civilian politicians or senior bureaucrats? I would refute both these suggestions. It is always tempting to blame politicians for the sorry state of military effectiveness. Pertinent here is the work of capable military historians, which, Mukherjee writes, “shows how senior military officers made operational errors, tendered incorrect advice, and were equally culpable” in the 1962 debacle. Research shows that, from the years of the border clashes in the late 1950s to the border war of 1962, even rudimentary coordination between civilians and military was absent in India. An unprepared military, intelligence failures and policy miscalculations by the leadership paved the way for the disaster of 1962. The defence ministry and the military were equally at fault.

The conclusion of this book does not offer much promise for the future of smooth civil–military relations in India because of vested interests in both the civil and military silos of the state. Recent history shows that the Indian military has become a “pressure group” that militates against “perceived civilian intervention.” The larger the role of the military in maintaining “normalcy” in a country, the greater is its propensity to get enmeshed in politics, especially in the politics of nationalism. In this context, the Indian Army’s rigid position on the draconian AFSPA is already evident. Mukherjee recounts another good example with respect to the expensive and wasteful deployment of the Indian and Pakistani armies on the high-altitude Siachen Glacier which, we must remember, is important to the ecology of the entire region. In 2012, Mukherjee recalls in this book, the “military and the veteran community acted as a pressure group” and scuttled attempts to demilitarise, and thereby rescue, the Siachen Glacier from the vagaries of military habitation and conflict through dialogue between the two countries.

Siachen continues to remain a symbol and victim of ultra-nationalism in India and Pakistan. These stalemates have, over time, developed an “institutional structure … convenient for all stakeholders,” Mukherjee writes. It is India’s misfortune that neither the military leaders nor bureaucrats and politicians have the will to change this state of affairs. At the end of the day, the politicians are to blame because all militarily powerful democracies are ultimately ruled by civilians, and, Mukherjee concludes, “the absent dialogue is primarily because the politicians are unwilling to engage in one.”

The book leaves us thinking that the politicians and military share a mutually beneficial relationship—I would call it a Politico-Military Complex, much like the Military-Industrial Complex in the United States—in the service of nationalism. In normal times, which have become rare in most democracies devastated by neoliberalism, the military is sometimes used for political purposes, but generally left alone to do its work without undue civilian interference. But we stopped living in normal times a long time ago.