writings of ali ahmed, PhD (JNU), PhD (Cantab), with due acknowledgement and thanks to publications where these have appeared. Download books/papers from dropbox links provided. Twitter: @aliahd66
Also see blog-www.subcontinentalmusings.blogspot.in. Former UN official, academic and infantryman. Author India's Doctrine Puzzle: Limiting War in South Asia (Routledge 2014). All views are personal.
The Indian military takes pride in its reputation as a professional force, defined in civil–military theory as valuing expertise, corporate autonomy, and social responsibility (Huntington 1967: 8–18). The military is also known for being secular and apolitical. While “secularism” reflects the anchoring of the military in the Indian culture and social environment, “apoliticism” owes to its staying out of politics unlike many peer militaries such as in Pakistan (Wilkinson 2015: 3). The three pillars—professionalism, secularism, and apoliticism—contribute to its effectiveness or ability to provision military security for its client, variously defined as the state and the nation.
Of late, there are concerns over the possible erosion in its two characteristics: secular and apolitical. As regards secularism, the apprehensions spring more generally from secularism being under assault in Indian politics by votaries of Hindutvaor cultural nationalism. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continuing in power with a renewed mandate—earned by a larger voting percentage than in 2014—could embed cultural nationalist verities into the Indian political culture. There is threat of a decisive turn away from civic nationalism that has defined the proverbial “idea of India” so far towards ethnic nationalism (Ansari 2019).
As for the apolitical characteristic, it is possible to discern a shift in the manner of political control by the government. In theory, there are two options of civilian control. Objective civilian control is the “maximisation of military professionalism” in order to keep it politically “sterile and neutral.” On the other hand, subjective civilian control is maximisation of the power of some particular civilian group in relation to the military (Huntington 1967: 80–85).
Thus far, Indian civil–military relations have largely been characterised by objective civilian control, wherein the military is kept distant from politics by an emphasis on its professionalism. The onset of majoritarian democracy—entailed by the Hindutva project—requires that the military remain politically inert or act as a handmaiden. The former can be maintained by continuing with objective civilian control. However, it increasingly appears that the government wishes a closer embrace of the military, implying the onset of subjective civilian control. This could culminate in inculcation in the military of a cultural nationalist world view, implicating its apolitical and secular character.
Politicisation is a move away from a theoretical ideal of a mutually respected political–military distance and towards a degree of like-mindedness between the two spheres. The problem of a military subscribing to a political ideology is that it would lose its apolitical status, placing it afoul of any successive government led by a different ruling party with a diverse political orientation. Its secularism stands to be compromised by its borrowing from the understanding of the term in the Hindutva lexicon, wherein there is little regard for religious and cultural diversity (Jaffrelot 2019). Such implications for the military of the ongoing turn to majoritarianism need acknowledging and should be studied for the impact on its professionalism.
In the run-up to the national elections this year, a letter from over 150 veterans of the armed forces to the President of India was put out in the open domain (Wire 2019a). Noting the reference to military operations in electioneering, in particular by the ruling party, the letter expressed apprehensions over the politicisation of the military. The concerns of the veterans were dismissed as fake news by the defence minister. The controversy attending the letter served a purpose of bringing the threat of the politicisation of the military into the open.
The national elections witnessed the surfacing of national security as a major election issue. Though, over the turn of the year, national security was not on the horizon since persuasive narratives had been built up around unemployment, the effects of demonetisation, the implementation of the goods and services tax, farmers’ suicides, rural distress, etc. However, the game changer as the elections approached was the Balakot aerial strike on 26 February 2019. The aerial strike was in retaliation for the car-bombing in Pulwama of a security forces convoy on 16 February 2019.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick off the blocks taking credit for the strikes and calling for votes on the basis of a leadership that is strong on defence. The government had similarly played up the surgical strikes on 29 September 2016, when the army had launched multiple trans-Line of Control raids across a wide front on terror camps in retaliation to the terror attack earlier on the army garrison at Uri on 18 September 2016. The military success—though denied by Pakistan—was put to political use then by the ruling party in the state elections in Uttar Pradesh early the following year, resulting in its sweeping victory in the crucial state. Taking cue, the ruling party used the opportunity of the Pulwama terror attack and its aftermath to reframe the national elections away from other electorally significant issues and towards national security. Sensing the reframing of the electoral agenda post Balakot, the Congress party claimed that while in power it had similarly launched trans-Line of Control raids (Scroll 2019).
In so far as the claims and counterclaims played out between the two political parties, it could be taken as par for electioneering course. However, as voting came to an end, the army operations branch claimed that it had no record of any previous surgical strikes (Bhat 2019), contradicting the opposition party. Immediately as voting ended, the northern army commander seconded the operations branch (Business Standard 2019). The army implicating itself into the political controversy, worked in favour of the ruling party’s design of electoral victory mediated by its approach to national security.
Arguably, if a government is bent on taking credit for strategic decision-making, it is not illegitimate of itself. For the Prime Minister to take credit for decisiveness to contrast his government from its predecessor government is explicable. The prospects of escalation being higher in both cases of surgical strikes—by land and by air—required the government to take ownership of the decision. Shouldering responsibility permits taking of the credit too, which the BJP proceeded to do to the chagrin of the opposition. However, involving the military for partisan reasons, amounts to the politicisation of the military.
A similar case can be made out on the controversy surrounding the Balakot aerial strike and its aftermath that witnessed a counter aerial strike by Pakistan in the Rajauri–Nowshera sector on 27 February 2019. As the controversy unfolded at the political level, the air force went further than it need have. The air chief publicly rued the non-availability of the Rafale aircraft (Peri 2019), with the sub-text implying that non-materialisation of the deal in a timely manner deprived India of a technological edge. This was suggestive of a slovenly approach to defence procurements by the Congress-led predecessor government, a deficiency made up by the Prime Minister’s controversial intervention in fast-forwarding the Rafale purchase. Given the political backdrop of the Rafale deal, the air chief’s reference to it was questionable.
After the election, the air chief went on to claim that there was no intervention by the Pakistan air force into Indian airspace in their counterstrike (Times of India 2019). This contradicted the government’s statement complaining of an air intrusion (Ministry of External Affairs 2019). No clarification ensued.
Another example is of the army’s participation in misleading the country on the reason for the emergency-like lockdown in Kashmir. The Srinagar corps commander went on national television informing of a heightening of a Pakistani proxy war, pointing to the recovery of warlike material along the Amarnath yatra route and to a thwarted border action team assault on the Line of Control. This led to the cancellation of the pilgrimage and advisory for all tourists and migrant workers to leave the Valley. As events turned out, it became clear that the clampdown was occasioned by a decision to reduce Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) from a state with a special status to bifurcated union territories (Das and Bhaskar 2019). The government, aware that the decision would evoke a backlash and possible violence, pre-empted this by a security blanket. In effect, the country ended up as target of information war, with the army as the instrument.
But, more importantly, its contribution to the threat perception assessment informing the decision is questionable. Anticipating that the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A would have led to civil unrest and a possible heightening of insurgency and proxy war thereafter, it is worth speculating whether the army’s input on managing the security enabled the government to go ahead with its initiative. The question arises if the army trimmed its input to what the government wished to hear. If so, it paved the way for a politically problematic decision.
Politicisation Pathways Ahead
A re-imagination of the idea of India in the Hindutva image is underway by the right wing in power for another five years. In its relationship with the military, the right wing would like to preserve military professionalism, even as it wishes to realign the other two characteristics, secularism and apoliticism. The government has two choices: first, to maintain the status quo in that it continues with civil–military relations as hitherto, or, second, to make the military imbibe cultural nationalism.
In Prime Minister’s first term, a significant change was the institutionalising of a new selection system for a service chief, moving away from the traditional system of seniority to that of deep selection. Currently, the government is considering successors to the air and army chiefs, who are retiring, and has created the post of chief of defence staff (CDS), though it has yet to name an incumbent. That the appointment of the CDS was in the offing may have prompted the political stances taken by the two services in the illustration above. The army chief has better chance of elevation as CDS, positioned better for the job through his political pliability during his tenure (Wire 2019b). The northern army commander, referred to in the example above, is in line for army chief, the candidate consideration for which has reportedly begun (Pubby 2019). The illustrations of the military’s partisanship recounted here indicate the vulnerability of the military—in anticipation of being rewarded—to political manipulation.
The military is a conservative institution with its members being of a largely realist and nationalist persuasion (IDS 2017: 59). Therefore, the ruling party ideology holds partial appeal for the military. If Indian secularism is interpreted as a cultural trait attributable to the prevalence of Hinduism, there is little change necessitated in the military’s secularism. On the aspect of its remaining apolitical, if the BJP sticks broadly to the constitutional route, even if not strictly bound by the constitutional spirit, the tradition-bound military can be expected to remain politically inert. This enables the exercise of objective civilian control, keeping the traditional political–military distance. Even though objective civilian control can serve the ruling party’s interest well enough, the instances of politicisation noted in this article indicate that, over the coming five years, the apolitical attribute stands to be diluted.
A change in secularism and apolitical facets can be expected to have a corresponding knock-on effect on the military’s professionalism, and, at one remove, its effectiveness. Since the government’s hardline policy towards Pakistan is predicated on continuing military effectiveness, enabling the relative stability of the three facets would be wise. In the case of the ideological penetration of the military, the strategic and operational thinking can potentially suffer. Its input to national security may be swayed by ideological winds if it loses its apolitical moorings. Maintaining the status quo on civil–military relations is, therefore, desirable.
Even so, it is unlikely that the right wing would leave the military alone in its India reset. It would prefer the majoritarian turn in political culture be reflected in the military’s organisational culture. The government needs warning off that this could prove to be at the cost of military professionalism and effectiveness. The military too needs cautioning that, for the sake of national security, it needs to stand up to any such attempt. A clue as to the direction the winds blow will soon be known from the apex military appointments that the government makes.
The author would like to thank attendees for comments on the content of my presentations at Carnegie India, New Delhi, on 28 June 2019, the Centre for Gandhian Thought and Peace Studies, Central University of Gujarat, Gandhinagar, on 2 August 2019, and at the Human Resources Development Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, on 3 August 2019.