Dynamics of the civil-military balance

Are we in or headed for a crisis in civil-military relations in India?

Media reports and commentary over the last 18 months indicate signs of turbulence. Tensions were brought to the fore in the wake of the pay commission award for the defence services last year and have raised their head over various issues since-from the implementation of the One Rank One Pension scheme for military veterans to the Union Defence Minister compelling the former army chief to reverse his decision against an erring senior aide.

A crisis, by definition, is among other things, a “crucial or decisive point or situation,” an unstable state of affairs, or a turning point. It cannot be anyone’s case that we are at such a point in civil-military relations in this country. In times of rapid social and economic change, it is normal to have relatively high levels of civil-military friction, problems and differences of opinion, but these things are not indicative of anything approaching a crisis. Unlike in the past, there may be more perceptions of disagreement between the two sides. These perceptions result—in a large measure—from greater media scrutiny and changes in technology with email, blogs and twitter providing faster access to leaks and disagreements.

The classical theory of civil-military relations outlined by Samuel Huntington, in The Soldier and the State, advises that the civilians should do politics and policy while the military carries out orders and executes operational plans with professional autonomy. But this is an impossible dream.

In reality, there is no bright line—or at best the line is not as bright as it is deemed to be—dividing what the military and civilians should do. Such complexity of applying this principle in actual situations where the lines between civilian and military competence are seldom clear-cut.

The civil-military relationship, and specifically the interaction between civilian leadership and uniformed military leaders, relies on the attitudes and actions of both civilians and the military. It would not be incorrect to surmise that civil-military affairs are all about the senior leaders and their relationships with each other.

A study of several successful senior military leaders in India would show that success came with them being comfortable working in a bureaucracy, occasionally pushing back against civilian leaders, and understanding the philosophical approach of their civilian bosses. The personal equation between General Sam Manekshaw and Indira Gandhi that delivered India a war victory in 1971 on the one hand and the political patronage extended to Lieutenant-General B M Kaul by Jawaharlal Nehru leading to the unmitigated disaster of 1962 on the other, bear testimony to the fact that good relations start at the top; but blind trust in military leadership by the political executive is not a guarantor of good results. The difference between success and disaster then, perhaps, lies in the degree of professionalism of the military leadership.

This fits in snugly with Huntington’s theory, where autonomy of action by the military is predicated on a professional officer corps. In the six decades of Indian republic, officers of the Indian armed forces—bar odd exceptions—have always been a beacon of professionalism. Professionalism requires of each officer a commitment to professional excellence—the observance of the highest technical standards in meeting the requirements of his chosen field. Hence, by definition, professionalism embraces the commitment to civilian control of the military.

This principle of civilian control and authority over the military is fundamental to democracy. It means that all issues, including those of national security must be decided by the people, acting through their elected representatives. The military serves its nation rather than leads it: military leaders advise elected leaders and carry out their decisions. Civilians need to direct the nation’s military, not because they are necessarily wiser or smarter than military professionals, but precisely because they are the people’s representatives and, as such, are charged with the responsibility for making these decisions and remaining accountable for them. Ultimately, civilian control rests upon a series of ideas, institutions, and behaviours that has developed over time in a democratic provides civilian officials with both the authority and the machinery to exercise supremacy in military affairs.

It has been asserted by most military veterans—who can be safely assumed as surrogates for serving officers—that this premise has resulted in bureaucrats protecting their turf in a perverse interpretation of civil control.

While the military prefers political control exercised by elected politicians, the intervening bureaucratic layer between the military and the political leadership results in ‘bureaucratic control’. However, in the recent case of defence minister forcing the army chief’s hand against his wishes, the ire has been directed against the political leadership as well. Some commentators have even gone on to suggest that the army chief should have resigned rather than accept the ministerial advice. They forget that walking away from the civil-military relationship through resignation is a dangerous instrument that, if used, will destroy all civilian trust in the military leadership.

The line between what constitutes ‘political control’ and ‘political interference’ in military affairs is rather blurred. Most military officers desire that the civilian leadership delegate to the military autonomous control over all things military. But military control in practice allows for direct civilian supervision of military matters, down to whatever level the civilian authorities find necessary. Counterintuitively, this is beneficial to the armed forces—and the nation—in the long run.

If civilian leaders believe only the military can make competent decisions about military issues, the situation could soon come to pass where civilian authorities do not care about or are uninterested in the military. This is the kind of apathetic situation that existed in India leading to the military debacle of 1962.

Unlike armed forces in other 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 good democratic health. But this is not solely to the credit of the military. Kotera M Bhimaya in Civil-Military relations: A comparative study in India and Pakistan, has posited that in the early years of the republic, the military brass which was awed both by Nehru’s personality and the bureaucracy’s professionalism made a virtue of necessity to preach the credo of civilian supremacy. Soon after becoming the first Commander-in-Chief, General Cariappa unequivocally exhorted the military not to meddle in politics but to obey the government in power; yet soon after his retirement, he caused considerable embarrassment to the government by overtly admiring General Ayub Khan’s dictatorial regime in Pakistan.

Madison said that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary”. It is precisely because men are not angels that the power to control the armed forces has been bestowed on those who would feel its burdens most directly. Rather than hope for better motives in either the civil or military leadership, the nation’s interests are best served by returning to the system of checks and balances that has served it so well for so long. Certain aspects of internal administration of the armed forces, particularly the disciplinary aspects, must be open to greater public scrutiny to avoid miscarriage of justice. The recent Sukhna land misappropriation case, for instance, establishes this need for moving away from a closed-door disposal of
cases by the defence services.

In any case, no political leader can ignore the armed forces’ corporate interests. At the same time, firm and effective political leadership will assert its policy-making prerogatives and prevail upon the armed forces to accommodate their corporate interests within the overall national policy. It is legitimate to expect the civilian leadership to play its designated role in the relationship wisely. The responsibility of the armed forces, however, is to ensure that military officers understand and apply appropriate norms of professional military conduct.

Louis Smith, an American scholar, wrote that “civil dominance, regardless of how securely grounded it may be in the Constitution and in the statutes, is not self-implementing. Like any other principle, it must be cherished in the public mind if it is to prevail. Like any other policy, it requires translation into effective administration.” It is incumbent upon the civil and military leadership of this country to ensure that their routine administrative actions end up strengthening this founding premise of the Indian Republic.