Tuesday, 9 November 2021


Incipient Shift in Civil-Military Relations ?


A problem from hell in India’s civil-military relations

A recently-released monograph, collectively authored by a set of liberal intellectuals, India’s Path to Power: Strategy in a World Adrift, carries a section on ‘Politicisation of the military’. The paper has it that there is an incipient shift in the apolitical characteristic of the Indian military. The military brass needs to fight a rearguard action, lest the military too fall along with other institutional ninepins.

The paper apprehends that, “the traditional apolitical stance of the military is under pressure at two levels: the first, of the senior military leadership, and the second, comprising the junior leadership of officers and persons below officer rank.” Whereas the rank and file is susceptible to the change in wider society towards majoritarianism, the senior leadership is under pressure from the rightward thrust of polity.

With regard to the former, it observes a conflation in the mind’s eye of senior military leadership, between the government and the State. This disrupts the traditional distinction between loyalty to the Constitution and the ruling party. As for the latter, according to it, there is an “assault on the secular outlook of the armed forces by wider social and ideological currents.”

It prognosticates that the political masters are likely to continue to ride military horses to electoral victory, in light of precedence of partisan dividend. The government has also taken to ‘deep selection’ of senior military appointments. Even though it is a legitimate process, pliability or like-mindedness could overshadow competence.

Though spot-on in diagnosing a looming problem, the paper – perhaps for reasons of space – is light on the remedy: “This issue is a matter for the military leadership to introspect and rectify.” It believes that the onus for keeping at an apolitical distance from pernicious politics devolves on a military leadership seized of the motto, “Service Before Self”.

It is unlikely that the paper’s recommendation that the military brass stand up and be counted on this score will find traction. There is a pattern of intimidation followed by the government, such as of the liberal media and personages taking a skeptical stance.

This will likely to deter any such thoughts on part of the military brass. It does not have to go as far back as the instance of sacking of an admiral by a previous right wing government, but the nasty information campaign of petty corruption against the general who led the pack when this government made its first deep selection, picking the third in line for army chief.

Curiously, on the continuing necessity of an apolitical military, the paper says, “This responsibility on the military leadership is huge because India is a nuclear power.” It does not elaborate on how India’s nuclear weapon state (NWS) status attenuates the apolitical military characteristic that predates the NWS status.

Even so, it is worth reiterating the questions that animate the section and to try answering them: Is an apolitical military needed, and, if so, how can this be ensured?

India, though continuing as a procedural democracy, has been recently termed an ‘electoral autocracy’. A putatively authoritarian polity can do without an apolitical military. An apolitical military is required when there is alternation in government of different political parties. The political project of this government requires it ensconced in power till the majoritarian turn to polity it not complete.

In such an endeavour, the ruling formation, termed the ‘Parivar’, requires the military as a subordinate ally. Compliance is facilitated by the military being enthused by the ethno-democracy in-the-works or swayed by a populist political leadership. Both thrust-lines for a docile military are at play.

The former is a work-in-progress, with no dearth of trying. Soon, the military curriculum is to be injected with a dash of inspiration from ancient India. The concept of an apolitical military is a throwback to the fifties, when the military sociology theory in the West dwelt on how to subordinate the military in a democracy. Today, how Indian tradition has it on issues as the relationship of the chakravartin with the senapati and place of the military in state craft - perhaps elucidated in tracts as the Arthashastra - matters more.

As for the latter, the prime minister has long sought occasions to vibe directly with troops, with his Diwali visits to frontlines being a prominent vehicle for such insertion into their consciousness. In his latest interaction with troops on the Line of Control, while thanking them for the execution by the army of surgical strikes, he brought out his abiding concern with their safety when the strikes were being conducted. The brass has evidently taken cue. A general recently approved an obsequious tweet on his formation’s twitter handle greeting the prime minister on his birthday, only to later withdraw it.

Taken together, the two thrust-lines imply that nurturing an apolitical military is not necessary in New India. The problem that arises, as pointed out in the paper, is, “a danger of a pliable military leadership being used for narrow party-political purposes at the cost of national interests.”

Illustrations of such a principal-agent (government-military) relationship are in the cover-up, with the military complicit, over Balakot and the Ladakh intrusion. The military’s sub-par performance is overlooked by political masters in return for the military keeping the reality – embarrassing for political masters - under wraps. The price of such mutual back-scratching is in national security.

Another illustration is Kashmir, where, in not calling out the obvious aggravation of the problem in Kashmir that accrues from the political high-handedness - specifically evacuation of Article 370 of all meaning - and security force heavy handedness, the military furthers an inaccurate picture of success. While there is no call that this be done in the open domain, there are no reports of the military thumping the table in dissent even at the discussion stage.

The military’s lending of its credibility to preferred narratives of the government helps absolve the government of democratic accountability, thus compromising a vital national interest: democracy. The military ends up playing a political role to the partisan advantage of the ruling party, unwarily ending up party to the slow-motion dismantling of liberal, Constitutional democracy.   

This is easy for the military to miss when, as the paper points out, “(C)ontemporary political and popular discourse routinely conflates the government with the state.” The military is victim of such conflation too. This reveals a blind side to its professional military education.

If and since the lacuna advantages the ruling party, the political masters are unlikely to be concerned. The military is also unlikely to righting the tilt, since it might put it at odds with the political masters. Besides, who will bell the cat? The opposition cannot be too vocal on this score, lest it drag the military into the political bull-pit. Strategic commentators can at best caution the national security establishment to advise political masters on a course correct.

The danger is in the problem culminating in the next national security crisis if in the interim till next elections. That these have a nuclear overhang explains the otherwise curious underlining in the paper of the nuclear factor as compelling civil-military relations remain on even keel.