[CDS General Rawat, and three Chiefs of Staff — Naravane, Karambir Singh, and Bhadauria]
A book review by me published in India Today, Dec 30, 2019 issue
Anit Mukherjee, The Absent Dialogue: Politicians, Bureaucrats, and the Military in India, Oxford University Press, 2020.
Civil-military relations in India are sensitive, tense, fraught with dread, and involve three parties – the armed services on one side and the tag team of politicians and bureaucrats on the other, tussling on eggshells. In this fandango, more effort is expended in turf battles, ego-status hassles, and furthering sectional interests than in working cooperatively to obtain speedy results. Enjoying superior position, the tag team mostly has its way, leaving the military to make do with what’s offered. Reduced almost to an afterthought, national security is not served well.
There is so much so seminally wrong with the existing system of national defence, it is hard to know where to start or whom to blame for the mess. In this book, Anit Mukherjee, a former armoured corps officer turned academic, identifies the villain — by his lights the “absence of dialogue” between the three players. But it is too pat an answer. Nevertheless, by addressing the problem of military effectiveness in terms of the lack of dialogue on weapons procurement, jointness, officer education, promotion policies and defence planning, he usefully pulls together information and insights based on interview research to highlight the ills plaguing the system that are widely known and have long been recognized as stumbling blocks. (A list of senior retired and serving military officers, bureaucrats and civilian experts who were interviewed is appended.)
A persuasive case is made that the extant state of civil-military relations is because there is no credible existential threat, “low salience [of defence] in electoral politics”, and because there is no real incentive to change. And that status quo is preferred because it preserves for the military its functional autonomy and for the babu-dominated politician-bureaucrat nexus the entirely satisfactory system of “power without accountability”. It is this context that the author fleshed out by tracing the state of civil-military relations through the tenures of the prime ministers to-date.
Jawaharlal Nehru established the system of overarching and disabling civilian control which may be democratic India’s strength and also major military weakness because generalist bureaucrats have tended to gum up the works. Civil-military relations reached heir apogee during the Indira Gandhi era when political involvement at every stage led to smooth inter-agency and inter-service coordination culminating in the successful 1971 Bangladesh war. The lesson that hands-on role by leaders is key, however, stays unlearned. The power balance tilted towards the military during the Rajiv Gandhi years when the showy army chief General K. Sundarji held sway. In the wake of controversial military operations (Brasstacks, Sri Lanka) and the Bofors scandal, the bureaucracy reasserted itself. In this milieu, disruptive institutional innovations are not countenanced.
The Committee on Defence Expenditure geared to curbing military spending did not survive the VP Singh interregnum because the armed services and the ministry of defence (MOD) bureaucrats alike found it “inconvenient”. In similar vein, a powerful Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) recommended by the Kargil Committee is unlikely to be realized with the Narendra Modi government favouring the Naresh Chandra Committee’s concept of a defanged four star CDS .
The absence of technical expertise and domain knowledge in MOD is the real scandal here, and Mukherjee dilates on it. He makes the telling point that uniformed officers are as much generalists as civil servants because the formers’ experience and professional training is so narrowly tactical they, like civilians, muddle along, unable to cope with the minutiae of technology trends, geopolitical developments, and the strategic scope and scale of effort needed for modern national security planning.
What the author misses out on is the crucial matter of political leaders shirking responsibility. Instead of setting goals, prioritizing threats and expenditure programmes and tasking bureaucrats and military to implement decisions, they rely on babus to, in effect, make them. This is the source of all the troubles, resulting in overbearing defence civilians, languid pace of decision-making, and a raft of seemingly irresolvable problems bedevilling India’s national security policy.