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

31 July 2020
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
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

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. 

Anirudh Deshpande is an associate professor at the department of history in Delhi University.

Keywords: military Indian Army bureaucracy Indian politics
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