An Army Day resolution for the new chief
On taking over as the chief of defence staff, General Bipin Rawat was asked about his often figuring controversially in headlines for some or other political intervention by him. His latest was his decrying of the counter citizenship amendment act protests. He had this to say in reply: “We stay far away from politics, very far. We have to work according to directions by the government in power.”
On the face of it, this is as uncontroversial a statement as can be. The military keeps a distance from politics and is obedient to the government, irrespective of the ruling party in power. The new army chief, General MM Naravane, in his interaction with the press on taking over, when asked about military politicization asserted as much, saying, “I totally disagree. We are totally apolitical. It is a misperception of a few people which is totally incorrect.”
However, in light of precedence of military’s parochialism prominently featuring Bipin Rawat all through his army chief days, interrogating whether the military retains its pristine apolitical status is necessary. The plethora of political interventions by General Rawat, and his counter-part air force chief, BS Dhanoa, does not need reiteration here. These cannot be summarily dismissed.
General Bipin Rawat’s statement has clues as to whether the suspicion that there is more to politicization of the military than mere difference of perception holds water. The statement can well be interpreted to mean that though the military maintains a distance from politics, any action that smacks of intervention in politics is in obedience to directions of the government in power.
Such an expansive interpretation of the military’s idea of duty of obedience to the civilian political leadership calls for interrogation. While it does have to answer to the civilian political leadership, it can reasonably be understood that the duty of obedience does not extend to illegal or illegitimate directions.
On this, General John Hyten, head of the United States’ nuclear weapons related Strategic Command, clearly set the gold standard in a modern, democratic civil-military relationship, stating in the context of President Trump’s inconsistent decision making:
I provide advice to the president, he will tell me what to do,”… “And if it’s illegal, guess what’s going to happen? I’m going to say, ‘Mr. President, that’s illegal.’ And guess what he’s going to do? He’s going to say, ‘What would be legal?’ And we’ll come up with options, of a mix of capabilities to respond to whatever the situation is, and that’s the way it works. It’s not that complicated.
This means a military needs to have (and does have) an internalised yardstick against which it measures the legitimacy or otherwise of its marching orders. In case the departure from the constitutional letter and norm and past practice is inexplicable and unwarranted, the military instead has the obligation to revert to the civilian master with its reservations and the two together are to arrive at a via media, whereby the civilian will prevails and the military does not overstep any constitutional line.
In effect, the constitutional straight and narrow is the yardstick. The military brass has acquired its stature in the national scheme so far by its adherence to this. Even Bipin Rawat’s public gaffes through his tenure so far has not shifted the normative goal posts. On the contrary, he has been upbraided for transgressing the constraints on political speech and behavior by a senior of the veteran community, Admiral Ramdas.
The military is not obligated where directions fail the appropriateness test. Whereas the duty of obedience is primary, it is not sacrosanct or unconstrained. The military leader has to apply his mind to received instructions and act as per the mandate in relation to the Constitution and - normatively - in relation to the nation.
In other words, in case a military receives instructions to make political statements, it really ought to politely fob these off. With time, deterrence against illicit action and mutual respect would set the relationship on even keel. The military needs to stand up for its constitutional obligation and tradition of apolitical and secular ethic, reminding political masters when necessary not to ask of it anything it cannot deliver on.
This is predicted on a dialogue between the two tiers – civilian and military – wherein the political tier respects the military’s space and the military does not attempt transcend it and resists attempts to prevail over it to act otherwise. Needless to add, such a ‘pull and push’ would require to be done discreetly within the corridors of power, so that the relatively delicate democratic edifice is not buffeted unduly.
Admittedly, this is a tall order, since, as Anit Mukherjee suggests in his new, eponymous book – The Absent Dialogue – dialogue is absent within the ministry. His finding reinforces Bharat Karnad’s colourful portrayal of the prime minister’s disdain for the anglicized military leadership, of the brass unavailable for discussion after sunset since they are presumably at the bar.
The last resort is of course for a military commander to resign. Civil-military theory has it that the civilian has the ‘right to be wrong’ and, in the agent-principal linkage, the civilian leadership is answerable to the electorate. It is for the electorate to punish the civilian leadership for wrong decision making. All a military professional can do under the circumstance is to resign.
This responsibility is not unknown to the military brass. Both socialisation and a professional military education underscore the importance of democratic civilian control, with its limits also forming part of the military acculturation. Exposure to civil-military relations (CMR) theory is part of military curriculum for higher ranks. The military is also cognisant of the place of tradition in military culture. Learning from peer militaries is also constantly ongoing. There is a hiatus of a year at Delhi’s Tees January Marg where those destined for apex ranks are exposed at the defence ministry controlled National Defence College to India’s democratic mores and practices.
In his rumination on his responsibility of the US’ nuclear arsenal, John Hyten, went on to say, “I think some people think we’re stupid. We’re not stupid people. We think about these things a lot. When you have this responsibility, how do you not think about it?” Basically, he underlines the extensive training and military professional education that prepares the brass for their jobs. In India’s case, an officer while getting to general rank spends a minimum five years in class rooms. This enables political sensitivity and knowledge of civil-military relations red lines.
The good sense in a professional distance from politics is as brought out by a former vice chief, Vijay Oberoi: that in a system of democratic alternation in government, the military can seamlessly transfer its loyalty between dispensations irrespective of who is elected to power. If and since political parochialism is not within the remit of the military, any insistence by the temporal political masters on this must be determinedly sidestepped by the military.
There are bureaucratic ways to ‘shirk’ – a Peter Feaver phrase - dodgy tasking. General Panag in an advisory piece for the new army chief recommends resort to cryptic military phrasing when interacting with the media, so as not to stray into political turf. This indicates that situations can be tactfully handled. The brass has over three decades of human relations management experience before getting to flag rank.
The unfortunate tendency today is in personalisation of power, an example is in the manner Narendra Modi supervised the annual conclave of director generals of police with a regimen that included yoga with Modi in the lead. The effect on policing in the national capital and India’s largest state is self-evident in the handling of the counter citizenship amendment act protests there.
Reminding the military of this verity at this juncture is timely in that there is a change of guard at 5 Rajaji Marg, the residence of the army chief. It is heartening to note the spoken reputation of General MM Naravane, the new incumbent. Any indoctrination residue from his schooling at a prominent right wing run school in Pune cannot but have been washed off in his close to four decades of imbibing and practice of military mores.
Going forward, the onus is on the military to stockade itself within its professional space. Adoption of a prickly posture – reminiscent of a porcupine – may send the message and deter the regime from abusing its authority over the military. Naravane has begun well by drawing attention at his first Army Day press conference to the preamble of the Constitution, which is echoing across the land today in student protests. It remains to be seen if he is prepared for a personal cost for better serving national security.