Explaining the military’s new found penchant for political partisanship
The soon-to-retire air chief has yet again chimed-in in a partisan manner. This time round he claims that the Pakistani military leadership has consistently under-estimated India’s national leadership. He was clubbing Narendra Modi’s decision on the Balakot aerial strike with the strategic decision making of the then national leaders in the Kargil, 1971 and 1965 Wars, equating an aerial strike with wars and Modi’s decision with that of Vajpayee, Indira Gandhi and Shastri in those wars. Since there is a self-evident lack of equivalence and proportion, it is apparent what the air chief is up to.
‘Yet again’ has been advisedly used. Earlier, he claimed that but for lack of the Rafale in India’s inventory, India would have walloped Pakistan in its retaliatory aerial strike to Balakot launched the following day by daylight at Naushera-Rajauri along the Line of Control (LC). The subtext was that the previous government dilly-dallied in procuring the Rafale while Modi fast-forwarded the deal at his Paris visit in 2015. Coming as these did in the midst of the controversy over the procedural shenanigans in the new Rafale deal, the remarks were partisan, favouring the ruling party. Elsewhere, he tried falsifying history, asserting that the Pakistani counter strike did not venture across the LC, contradicting the ministry statement on air intrusions that day.
Alongside, it needs recall that the air chief indulgences have been comparatively much less. The army chief has been rather brazen through his tenure, perhaps emboldened by the new process of deep-selection that fetched him the rank and by his ethnic affinity – noted by a scribe – with the reigning security deity, National Security Adviser (NSA), Ajit Doval. The two have together set a new benchmark in India’s civil-military relations (CMR) of atypical military subservience.
There are three possibilities that cover the direction of India’s CMR.
The first is banal. There is the chief of defence staff (CDS) appointment up for grabs since the prime minister from his Red Fort podium, merely announced the creation of the position but not the name of the incumbent. That the announcement is no surprise is clear from the positioning undertaken by the two over the year and more. The army chief was on a better wicket for he has been the more vocal of the two in broadcasting this political pliability, be it on Kashmir, Pakistan, internal security and, in one memorable instance, on domestic politics in Assam. The air chief perhaps fancied his own chances, believing that to get the air force that has been the hold out for long on the CDS idea, the first incumbent being from the air force would help make it fall-in in line.
This partially explains the politically partisan interventions of the two service heads over the year. It is well known the regime uses its discretion as the appointing authority to place institution heads into position, enabling manipulation of these agencies and institutions. It is one way it has managed to damage the institutional health across the board over the past five years. The loaves of office have always been enticing for those accustomed to power and perks. In the case of retiring brass, governorships are also much valued sinecures. In this case, the air chief has a week to go and can yet be recalled from retirement for taking up the CDS job – as was Maxwell Taylor in the United States.
A second explanation could be information war. According to the new army doctrine, hybrid war substitutes for peace time these days. Since Pakistan keeps up its proxy war, hybrid war is ever ongoing. Information war is leading characteristic of hybrid war. This requires the military to keep up the din of a war impending. The army chief let on as much recently, saying that fear keeps Pakistan deterred. Today this is very much necessary as Modi is appearing at the United Nations General Assembly session. A crisis back home would be embarrassing, one sparked by Pakistani setting off of domestic unrest in Kashmir. There is widespread expectation that the dam of disaffection is yet to burst in Kashmir. India would like to stay Pakistan’s hand in setting it off. Deterrence messaging time to time is useful on this score.
The air chief’s statement is thus part of the orchestration by the national security establishment, which has lately tapped the defence minister, the minister in the prime minister’s office, the army chief etc for statements on Pakistan Occupied Kashmir to the army’s readiness to grab it. In this case, the air chief is underlining the new doctrine of strategic proactivism, so that Pakistan is not kept guessing.
Even so, it is a bit of stretch. He appears instead to be publicly taking on the criticism one of India’s leading strategic minds, Manoj Joshi. Joshi, from his think tank perch had punctured the hype around the Balakot decision. He had it that decision making around the strike was not of strategic levels as undertaken by previous prime ministers.
A similar public punch up was indulged in by the northern army commander with his predecessor in the chair, DS Hooda, over whether the surgical strikes ever took place under anyone before Modi. Ranbir Singh – in line for army chief – had it twice over that this was not so, directly contradicting his retired predecessor. The first time round the controversy played out well prior to elections and Pulwama-Balakot. However, it was egregiously raised yet again at election time by the operations branch – backed by the northern army commander. Given this election time backdrop and Hooda’s writing up of a security doctrine for the Congress, it was clearly political partisanship on part of the military, either at its own or at the behest of powers that be.
The air chief, perhaps mistakenly feeling his service’s Balakot dare devilry was being put down, has now waded in to take up cudgels with Joshi. To him, the Pakistanis went ahead with Pulwama terror attack believing that India would be cowed down as usual. Instead, from the near real time counter strike by the Pakistanis they were pretty much awaiting such knee-jerk response by India.
This puts a question mark over India’s new policy of mow-the-grass. The next time, the onus would be on India to escalate. After the dogfight at Naushera-Rajauri we took recourse to information war – claiming to have shot down an F-16 for the loss of our fighter. It did not work too well then either; it cannot be expected to work another time. India would have to follow through with missile strikes - which it refrained from this time. The need to avoid this escalatory ladder charitably explains the periodic information war salvos, including that of the air chief. Uncharitably put, it is well nigh likely that the chiefs are being used by their political minder – who is no longer the defence minister but the NSA – for stating the party line.
Finally, and more importantly, there appears to be a shift in India’s civil-military relations. The shift can be visualized as two sets of three circles: of political culture, strategic culture and the military’s organizational culture. The first visualization is in concentric circles, wherein the organizational culture is nested in strategic culture, itself layered by political culture. The second visualization is of the three as overlapping circles.
The first is theory compliant in which organizational culture of the military is detached from the political culture and changes in political culture are mediated by the intervening circle of strategic culture. There is a change in political culture brought about by ascent to power of cultural nationalism. This has resulted in a muscular strategic policy, shifting strategic culture from defensive to offensive. In turn, the military’s organizational culture has proven responsive, taking like a duck to water, throwing aside strategic restraint in favour of strategic proactivism.
The second visualization - of overlapping circles – is more troubling, but likely closer to reality. This has political culture impacting the military’s organizational culture directly. This is through penetration of cultural nationalist verities into the organizational cultural spaces. This is through appointment of pliable generals, such as the army chief, and, through an ideational conveyer belt with the veterans’ community setting up an assembly line into the military.
Many retired military men signed up for the BJP. Modi first addressed an ex-servicemen rally before he inaugurated the national war memorial, muscling out the president from his privilege. Thus, the cultural nationalist verities have been internalized by the service members and the military is no longer the pristine apolitical and secular organization as hitherto. This explains the service chiefs’ partisan behavior and with none finding it amiss and calling it out on that count.
The military’s partisanship – of which the air chief’s recent intervention is illustration - is on account of all three explanations. There is the mundane one at the individual level; the second is functional, which allows the military some slack; and the third is the more sophisticated one, requiring surveillance of the military’s future behavior to verify if indeed the ground has shifted in India’s CMR.