Monday, 27 May 2019

Unedited version

Agenda for the next defence minister

Admittedly, what follows is wishful. Nevertheless, with the Election Commission of India felled and the Supreme Court betraying signs of doddering, it is important to preserve the last institution standing, the military, from the New (Ugly) India.
The timely discussion on politicization of the military witnessed at election time suggests that the priority of the incoming defence minister (not known at the time of writing) would be to invigorate the military’s professional, secular and apolitical standing.
The danger is in the mandating of the minister to disregard or, worse, devalue these two-hundred year old facets.
Musical chairs attended the appointment over the past five years, with one incumbent bravely battling a major ailment, a second moonlighting at another major portfolio while also battling health issues, and the third split between being minister and party mouthpiece.
None of the three could see, leave alone prevail, on their more politically inclined colleagues to leave the military alone. Even though precedence suggests another weak minister is in the offing, even so, it is worth reminding the minister that in the cabinet system the buck stops at her door.
At the outset, the minister is must be warned that she is starting off with a deficit. The strong-on-defence claim of the ruling party is buoyed by hot-wind. Bluntly put, India came out second best in the optics surrounding the Balakot-Naushera episode. While information war is a major front, spin-doctoring cannot substitute for the real thing. Worse is if policy makers believe their own propaganda output.
Course correction requires being mindful of the three inter-twined facets that have been under threat - if not assault – over the past five years.
Professionalism has taken a beating in the government’s elevating the third in line for chiefship of the army over two of his seniors (if not betters) on account of his expertise in a secondary role of the army, counter insurgency.
No recourse to management and organizational theory is necessary to discern that - taking cue - there would be a scramble in the brass to demonstrate their showing in countering insurgency. For example, a colonel’s brief author-bio at the end of his article in a service journal highlights his 17 years in Kashmir. Such bias might have diluted its ability in its primary role, conventional warmaking.
Even so, the defence minister must ensure the winner in the pack is one not one cottoning the means and methods recounted in the recently released report by two non-governmental organizations in Jammu and Kashmir, Torture: Indian State’s Instrument of Control in Indian Administered Jammu and Kashmir.
On secularism, illustrations may better prove the threat. An extract from a book on ancient warrior culture published by a regimental press reads: ‘(there were) four types of flying machines, including instructions for its construction and pilot training. Based on these instructions, fly-worthy machine was reportedly reconstructed by a native ….’*.  The former general officer who authored this installed the statue of the goddess of learning in the Valmiki Library when he in his time in uniform headed that joint services institution.
While cultural nationalism has now been indubitably mainstreamed by voters, making tracts as above par for the course, the new defence minister should not throw the baby of secularism out with the bathwater.
Societal debate as to the extent Hinduism and Hindutva are congruent and the extent to which these define New India is underway. The military needs cauterizing from the effects till the electorate rules on the results of New India five years downstream.
As for the third – apolitical – facet, it is cannot any longer be taken as self-evident. Take the case of the unnecessary upping of the ante in Kashmir after the last round of elections there resulting in 14 militants dead in short order. Even if the zest accounted for the Al Qaeda affiliated top-gun there, does this heightened operational tempo not bespeak of a military attuned to the political breeze?
The Northern Army commander – supposedly in line for next chief – reprised, albeit after voting finished, the line put out by the operations directorate that there were no surgical strikes prior to September 2016 since it had no records of prior such actions. Is the military unmindful of the political context to the discussion on surgical strikes? Should the army commander be points-scoring over his predecessor’s line to the contrary, adopted by an opposition party?
In case the military has been put to it in both cases cited, then it should have the savvy to ‘shirk’ in civil-military theoretical jargon (dither and duck) or the backbone to stand up and ask the conveying authority of the political plank in both cases (likely the national security adviser (NSA)) to lay off.
A minister needs to have a reassuring presence. It is not for the military to battle the trickle down of political compulsions. A minister needs being possessive about her ministerial turf. It is not a part time job, nor is it confined to managing the civilian side of military matters alone.
Inability in incumbents so far has led to the NSA system - fattened on proximity to the prime minister’s office - to lay into the military using the prime minister’s shoulders at the first address of the prime minster at the combined commanders’ conference. Lack of traction on the speech by end of the first Modi term led to the NSA muscling in on the reins that appropriately should have been with the minister and a chief of defence staff.
The minister’s first call would be to wrest back the reins. She must  step up and reenergize the cabinet system of ministerial accountability. That the Congress manifesto had something sensible to say on institutionalizing the national security council system does not mean it cannot be appropriated. (After all, if Imran Khan’s slogan Naya Pakistan can be appropriated for New India, so can a leaf from a fallen foe’s book!)
A change of NSA would be useful alongside, with candidates aplenty. For instance, there is the former foreign secretary, S. Jaishakar, who held his own while holding the confidence of his political minders.
This would be precautionary buffeting of national security from arbitrary decision making, witnessed multiple times, for example, at demonetization and in the comical rationale (the radar-cloud relationship) to the Balakot decision.
The more significant matter is however likelihood of the military being next port of call for ideological and institutional reshaping by Hindutva.
The first term witnessed a subtle way of doing so. For instance, when the late former minister visited a leading military school in Dehra Dun, he took along with him the ideologue, Tarun Vijay. What the outcome was is not known, but this time round the right wing will be out to take over the only remaining institutional space in the country.
One way to keep watch is with an eye on veterans with known right-wing predilections. Keeping them off professional discussion rooms is one way, even if they manage a foot in the door for their sponsors via social media.
A simple measure could be a conference of editors of the military’s in-house publications in which editorial ethics are revised. Such a measure would keep instances, such as, in one case, of advocacy for depriving immigrants voting rights in the north east, and, in another case, reference to terrorism as an ‘Islamic’ way of war, despite twenty years even though a better substitute, ‘Islamist’, has been part of strategic glossary some twenty years now.  
The incoming minister needs being cautioned to insure against beclouding of the military’s patriotism with the ruling party’s potion on nationalism. History will judge the minister by her showing on this. As a sweetner, she may be reassured that only with the military instrument remaining professional, will she be able to deliver successfully on any muscular policy her boss chooses to adopt,
*Aiyengar, SRR (2018): Timeless ethos of the Indian warrior, Jabalpur: Grenadiers Association Printing Press.