Book review: India’s civil-military friction - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Tuesday 19 November 2019

Book review: India’s civil-military friction

The Absent Dialogue: Politicians, Bureaucrats and the Military in India
Anit Mukherjee
Oxford University Press
Price: Rs 1,100/-
Pages: 313

Relations between India’s military and its civilian elite – the political class and the bureaucracy – have always been tinged with suspicion, well before army chief General VK Singh took the government to court in 2012 over his date of birth (and, therefore, retirement). The day General Singh filed his case, the government was rattled by reports that an army battalion was moving from Hisar towards Delhi and a parachute battalion was moving on the capital from Agra. Fearing a coup attempt, intelligence agencies sounded a false terror attack warning to slow traffic towards Delhi; and the government summoned top generals to ask what was going on. Nothing came of it, or of the chief’s petition, but the media firestorm around this underlined the delicacy of civil-military relations in India.

Anit Mukherjee’s excellent new book reveals that this was hardly the first such incident. When Jawaharlal Nehru died in 1964, New Delhi received reports that army units were moving in from Western Command in Punjab. This was worrying, given the predictions of western political analysts that Indian democracy would die with Nehru, and the military would take over. It is unclear whether the army’s move was unauthorized, or a precaution to control the massive crowds expected at Nehru’s funeral. At any rate, it led to the Western Army Commander, Lieutenant General Sam Manekshaw, being transferred to the Eastern Command.

Next, when Lal Bahadur Shastri died in 1966, acting prime minister, Gulzari Lal Nanda allegedly called for Border Security Force (BSF) units to move to Delhi. Indira Gandhi feared this was an attempted coup by Nanda, but the latter clarified later that he called in the BSF to guard against any army coup attempt. Soon after that, the army chief of the day, General JN Chaudhuri, recounted to the British High Commissioner in India that he had had to reassure Defence Minister YB Chavan that a coup was inconceivable. Chaudhuri also told the High Commissioner that, if the President of India ordered the army to take over, even against the wishes of the government, the military would have the political cover to comply.

Such conversations might seem inconceivable today, but the 2012 incident was just seven years ago. That makes Mr Mukherjee’s study of civil-military relations relevant and timely. In The Absent Dialogue, he argues that successive prime ministers have guarded against a politicised military by incrementally relegating it to the political side lines, where it enjoys nominal autonomy in the conduct of operations. But this political defanging has been so complete, that the army, navy and air force have lost much of their functional effectiveness. The book’s first three sentences sum up its central question: “How does a developing country create an effective military that is not a threat to its democracy? Can a state exercise civilian control and, at the same time, maximize the effectiveness of its military? Or is this a zero-sum game where one comes at the cost of the other?”

Mr Mukherjee is well equipped to answer these questions. He has served nine years as an officer in an Indian Army combat unit, including counter-insurgency stints in Kashmir and Nagaland. He has done his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, USA and is now teaching at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. His doctoral dissertation was on civil-military relations and he has refined that over the last decade into what will be one of the definitive reference works on this subject.

He tackles his subject with painstaking analytical rigour. He characterizes the civil-military arena in India as a three-pronged dynamic involving civilians who lack expertise on defence issues; a military firmly yoked under strong bureaucratic control; but which enjoys functional autonomy in the tactical and operational realms. Students of Indian security would instantly recognise this as our civil-military paradigm. In assessing military effectiveness, Mukherjee explores five functional dimensions in separate chapters: weapons and equipment procurement; tri-services functioning or “jointness”; military education; officers’ promotion policies and defence planning. Each dimension demonstrates how flawed civil-military relations have damaged that particular aspect of functional efficiency.

A particular strength of the book is its historical grounding. Mr Mukherjee recounts Lord Louis Mountbatten’s attempts, continuing for decades after independence, to induce Nehru and his prime ministerial successors, to put in place an empowering structure for higher military command, including appointing a “permanent chairman of the chiefs of staff committee” – which India is still debating. Interestingly, the author recounts that Mountbatten regarded the navy and air force as a dozen years behind the army in producing experienced senior officers, since those two services had been “Indianised” later. Precisely 12 years later, in 1960, Mountbatten wrote to Nehru suggesting he appoint General KS Thimayya tri-service commander, but the influential defence minister, Krishna Menon, who detested the popular Thimayya, stood in the way. As late as 1977, 30 years after independence, Mountbatten proposed (in vain) to speak to incoming Prime Minister Morarji Desai about appointing a tri-service commander. Ironically, it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has taken up Mountbatten’s suggestion, with his Independence Day announcement of a tri-services commander. It remains to be seen when that will be acted upon.

Mr Mukherjee’s book has garnered plaudits even before publication. The chapter on “jointness” was awarded the prestigious Amos Perlmutter Prize in 2017, for the best essay submitted to the Journal of Strategic Studies. The book is slated to be discussed during the Chandigarh Literature Festival in December and the Jaipur Literature Festival in January 2020. Astonishingly, given the market for this book in the Indian army, navy and air force and the strategic community, the publishers have published just 300 copies of the book in the first run. You might well have to wait your turn to obtain it.

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