Books | Life in Silos

In his book The Absent Dialogue, Anit Mukherjee chronicles the relationship between politicians, bureaucrats and the military. An extract

The Absent DialogueAtal Bihari Vajpayee was the first non-Congress prime minister to complete a full term in office. Widely acknowledge as a great orator and a keen intellect, his Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition government was credited with a number of foreign and defense policy transformations. His premiership literally began with a bang as in May 1998, within two months of coming to power, India conducted five underground nuclear tests. Interestingly, the service chiefs were not informed until the very last moment. Despite that, it was expected that relations between the military and India’s first right-of-center government would be strong. However, these expectations were soon belied due to tensions between civilians and the military culminating in an unprecedented event-the sacking of the chief of naval staff, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat. As described in greater detail in Chapter 6, the admiral became embroiled in a clash of will with the government over personnel issues, leading to his dismissal. To deflect criticism arising from this controversy, Defence Minister George Fernandes publicly announced plans to establish a group for ‘restructuring of the services and integration of the services and the ministry of defence.” Ostensibly then, it was intended that “a wholly new structure” would be recommended that would serve the twin purposes of allowing a greater say for the military in the decision-making process while decreasing civilian bureaucratic interference. However, despite making this announcement, no such group was set up. Instead, as in many other democracies, change was forced upon the MoD and the overall national security apparatus by an unanticipated war.


The Kargil War: Challenging Traditional Notions of Civil-Military Relations

The 1999 Kargil war was triggered by an incursion of Pakistani troops across the Line of Control that divides the two countries in Kashmir. India’s initial response to this was slow and confused as they lacked knowledge about the identity of the infiltrators. However, by the end of May 1999, with growing awareness of the situation, the political leadership told the military to escalate its operations, both on land and in air. While doing so, it only gave an overriding directive — that the Line of Control would not be crossed by either land or air forces. This was a very specific operational directive which violated the traditional pattern of India’s civil-military relations-where civilians were not supposed to intervene in operational matters. What explains this anomaly?

The Kargil war occurred a little over a year after the nuclear tests conducted by both countries, and India was under considerable diplomatic pressure for seemingly breaking an international moratorium against nuclear testing. The outbreak of the war added to fears in the international community about the India-Pakistan rivalry and focused attention on the Kashmir dispute. They were concerns therefore about a potential nuclear war on the subcontinent. These concerns played an importance role in shaping Indian decision-making. India’s political leadership was anxious not to legitimize two narratives: that India behaved irresponsibly and that India-Pakistan relations, more specifically the Kashmir issue, required the attention of the international community. As a result, India’s political class decisively intervened in what ordinarily should have been considered the military’s domain-the operational conduct of the war. Indian leaders calculated, correctly as it turned out, that they would gain significant diplomatic advantage from such a measured and responsible approach.

The directive not to cross the Line of Control created problems for the Indian military, and there was a strong perception that as a result it was taking in more losses. Initially, the service chiefs accepted these restraints; but as the war dragged on, they faced mounting criticism from within their organization and were under pressure, including from the National Security Advisory Board, to challenge this operational directive. However, after Indian troops won the Battle of Tololing on June 13, 1999, the tide of the war turned and the pressure to revisit the do-not-cross the Line of Control decision reduced. This episode is crucial in examining civil-military relations as it was one of the few instances where politicians disregarded professional military advice and placed restrictions on their operations. More importantly, it demonstrated for the first time that politicians could interfere in what could have been construed as a “purely military” activity if they were firm and explained their reasons clearly to the military leadership. This reflected a maturity and confidence in civil-military relations that contrasted from earlier years. Crucially, it also reflected a dilemma of overt nuclearization in the sub-continent. After the nuclear tests of 1998, civilians were forced to pay greater attention to military plans.

The Kargil crisis forced politicians, civilians, and the military to work together under pressure; and much of the bitterness that was created due to previous controversies, like the dismissal of Admiral Bhagwat in December 1998, was set aside. General V.P Malik, the chief of army staff, observed that “the three chiefs were closely enmeshed in the political-military decision-making process [which was] open and direct… and after discussions, the concerned executive authorities, including the three chiefs, received directions from the prime minister and the national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra.” Later, there were accounts praising this teamwork, wherein civilians made the strategic decisions and the military had tactical autonomy.

That civilians and the military worked together while facing a crisis is not unusual or surprising, but after it was over, it was business as usual. The military was to complain again about its neglect, and in later years General Malik would emerge as one of the leading critics of the systems of higher defense management and the tenor of civil-military relations. However, the war also triggered a public outcry, and this led to the most significant reforms in India’s national security apparatus.


Change, at Last: The Post-Kargil Defense Reforms

As a result of the Kargil war, the Vajpayee government established what has become popularly known as the Kargil Review Committee, headed by K. Subrahmanyam, considered the doyen of strategic studies in India. This committee submitted its report, which was tabled in Parliament on February 23, 2000. The report reaffirmed a commonly held view: India’s national security and system of higher defense management required major overhaul. “An objective assessment of the last 52 years will show,” the report argued, “that the country is lucky to have scraped through various national security threats without too much damage, except in 1962. The country can no longer afford such ad hoc functioning. Presciently, it also cautioned that it would not be easy to change as the “political, bureaucratic, military and intelligence establishments appear to have developed a vested interest in the status quo.”

One of the main recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee was the need to conduct a thorough review of the national security system. Accordingly, in April 2000, the government set up the Group of Ministers (GoM). This body was created to deliberate upon reports submitted by four task forces examining aspects pertaining to intelligence, internal security, border management, and defense. The one most relevant for civil-military relations was the Task Force on Defence, which was headed by Arun Singh, the former politician turned recluse turned military reformer — back for seemingly his last innings.

This task force recommended major changes including appointing a CDS to head a joint staff, among many others. While implementing many of its recommendations the government demurred from creating the post of CDS. This was because of opposition from different quarters-the Indian Air Force, civilians bureaucrats, and even the Congress Party. Not appointing a CDS, according to Admiral Arun Prakash, member of the Arun Singh Task Force and later chairman of the chiefs of staffs committee, “ripped the heart out of the GoM recommendations.” Indeed, the services maintained their individual autonomy, and jointness continued to be problematic.

The Arun Singh Task Force, however, largely left unchanged the interaction between the defense ministry and military headquarters. Indicative of a difference of opinion within the task force, this meant that the civilian bureaucracy continued to function as before. To be sure, there were some improvements. For instance, a joint staff, called the Integrated Defence Staff was established in 2001 and has gradually come into prominence, greater financial powers were allocated to the military and the joint Andaman and Nicobar Command has been established. But there have also been arguments about how even these reforms have been subverted in practice by different bureaucracies, both civilian and military.

As a result, since around 2009 there have been persistent calls to revisit the defense reforms process; and, indeed, the government appointed two committees (the Naresh Chandra Committee in 2012 and the Shekatkar Committee in 2015), with an explicit mandate to do so. But despite submission of the reports of these committees, there has been no substantial change. Why did the government fail to act more decisively, for instance, by appointing a CDS, post-Kargil and since?

There are two main explanations for this. First, India’s political class in uncomfortable with the idea of altering the strict form of civilian control that was shaped during the Nehru era. They believe that the current structure of civil military is efficient enough to deal with the current threats. Therefore, and this cuts across political parties, they are unwilling to appoint a CDS. Second, the status quo is, as the Kargil Review Committee correctly pointed out, suitable for all of the existing stakeholders. Simply put, the services do not want jointness or to have a CDS with a mandate to enforce it. Similarly, civilian bureaucrats are reluctant to tinker with the procedural rules governing civil-military relations. The political class, which is ultimately responsible, is also reluctant to enforce radical change without gaining consensus from all of the constituencies.

Shortly after the Vajpayee government implemented some of these changes, it was faced with another military crisis — the 2001-2001 border mobilization crisis, also known as Operation Parakram. This was triggered by an attack on December 13, 2001, by Pakistani terrorists on the Indian Parliament. In response, the government ordered a large-scale military mobilization, which accentuated war fears on the subcontinent. Eventually, the crisis was resolved after eight months, but it also revealed a major disconnect in civil-military relations. It was not, and is still not, entirely clear what was the overall political objective and if this was clearly communicated and understood by the military Moreover, it was evident that the political leadership did not understand the military options and that the military, in turn, did not plan and prepare for a short, swift conflict with Pakistan. This revealed the need for a continuous dialogue between civilians and the military over political aims, military doctrines, plans, and operations. However, the Vajpayee government was seemingly intellectually exhausted with constant military crises, and no effort was made to analyze the lessons emerging from this operation.


Another Missed Opportunity: Vajpayee’s Legacy

Prime Minister Vajpayee assembled a team that showed greater enthusiasm than its predecessors on issues pertaining to national security. His principal secretary and national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra, played a hands-on role while dealing with different crises. L.K Advani and Jaswant Singh were other senior members of the cabinet that advised the prime minister. The defence minister, George Fernandes, had a mixed legacy. Like the infamous Krishna Menon, his initial actions, including sending civilian bureaucrats to visit forward posts on the Siachen glacier, endeared him to the military. However, he was later embroiled in numerous controversies and forced to temporarily step down after corruption charges were brought against him following an investigative report by Tehelka magazine. This proved to be a blessing in disguise as Jaswant Singh, who served in the army for a short while, assumed temporary charge of the MoD. He used this opportunity to bring Arun Singh into the MoD to implement the post-Kargil defense reforms. Together they were able to make some changes but could not overcome opposition, especially to the proposal of creating a CDS, After Fernandes was cleared of corruption charges, he was reinstated to the cabinet; and this effectively ended the defense reforms process.

The Kargil war, forced upon India, led to the most significant reforms in the Indian-military. This was therefore, an opportunity to address structural weaknesses in civil-military relations. Perhaps Vajpayee thought it best to adopt an incremental approach to change; but, with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that he did not go far enough. It would not be overly harsh therefore to consider this a setback for Vajpayee’s overall legacy.

Perhaps however one should be kinder on Vajpayee as that type of transformational reforms has not even been pushed by his successors. As one analyst pessimistically argued, ““the only consistency in reforming India’s moribund and bureaucracy-ridden security architecture remains ensuring that no comprehensive reform occurs…. The reorganization of India’s higher defense management, started after the Kargil War, continues to languish despite the laps of nearly 16 years.” An important part of any such reorganization, will have to address one of the main points of friction in its civil-military relations — the relationship between the soldier and the bureaucrat.

The Absent Dialogue
Politicians, Bureaucrats, and the Military in India
Anit Mukherjee
Oxford University Press, Rs 1,100, Pg 313


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