Indian nationalists identified the problem of military’s outsized influence in matters of policy

by Srinath Raghavan

The recent controversy over the ministry of defence spokesperson’s exchange on Twitter with senior retired officers reminds us about the precarious state of our civil-military relations. Admiral (retd) Arun Prakash has since written a characteristically perceptive and measured analysis of the underlying issues. The sheer dignity of his response underscores the growing lack of civility on the part of the civilian establishment in dealing with the military. Admiral Prakash’s diagnosis, however, could be developed further. In particular, two sets of issues that he identifies need to be unpacked.

Consider first his observation that “the Indian military space, within the national security arena, has been progressively dwindling since Independence and the process continues even today”. This is undoubtedly true, but it is worth pointing out that in the early decades after Independence this was absolutely necessary. For, the military had an outsized influence in matters of policy under the British Raj. The commander-in-chief of India, who was the head of all the services and not just the Army, was also the military member of the viceroy’s executive council and its second-ranking official. In other words, the senior most military officer was effectively the defence minister of British India. This gave the military a disproportionate voice in matters of the state. For instance, the military cornered well over half of the Government of India’s budget for the five decades preceding Independence.

Indian nationalists identified this problem early on. From the turn of the 20th century, leaders like Gopal Krishna Gokhale called for a reduction in military expenditure and a restructuring of the government to increase civilian influence over military matters. Just how skewed this relationship was can be seen from the famous power struggle between the viceroy, Lord Curzon, and his commander-in-chief, Lord Kitchener, over the degree of influence the former could wield on military matters: Curzon was forced to resign in 1905. In the subsequent debates about “Indianisation” of the Indian Army, Indian leaders also sought “civilianisation” of the structures of higher defence. The Motilal Nehru Report of 1928, which presented a blueprint for India’s future constitution, called for “the representation of the army in the legislature by a responsible minister [as opposed to the commander-in-chief], who will in actual administration be guided by expert advice”.

Almost two decades would pass before this change occurred. It came about with the formation of the interim government in 1946 and the appointment of Sardar Baldev Singh as the defence member. The following year, the chiefs of Air Force and Navy were designated commanders-in-chief, thereby reducing the primacy accorded to the Army. Still later, in 1955, the title of commander-in-chief was abolished altogether and the heads of the defence services were designated chiefs of staff. During this period, civilian officials were also placed in charge of the ministry of defence – a move that was hardly free of friction even at the time. But all this was deemed necessary to ensure that the military’s extraordinary institutional influence was redressed.

Over time the balance has swung in the opposite direction, but this historical context is essential to recall. Officers of Admiral Prakash’s generation, of course, know this background, but a younger generation of officers has internalised a historically inaccurate narrative of the military being marginalised from the outset by nationalist leaders and their civilian officials. This can hardly be healthy for the evolving relationship between the armed forces and the civilians.

Then too, the narrative of civilian control degenerating into “civil service control” can be overstated. The civilian officials are hardly autonomous actors who lead the political masters by their noses. The importance of measures such as integration of the ministry of defence and the service headquarters has been pointed out by successive committees on national security. The political leadership knows these arguments but chooses not to act on this key issue. This is a larger failure of our political establishment and cannot merely be pinned on the bureaucracy.

Without excusing the bureaucracies’ hidebound stance, we could also note that the military has done little to prepare its officers to work on policy matters. None of our professional military education institutions provide any serious training on these issues. Redrawing the organisational chart of higher defence is unlikely to help without these underlying changes.

The second point worth pondering is Admiral Prakash’s observation about the military’s perception of growing asymmetry with the civilian bureaucracy owing to the decisions of successive pay commissions. This is indeed true, but it needs to be placed in a wider context. Against the backdrop of rapid economic growth over the past couple of decades, the gap between the military and the wider civilian elites has increased considerably. Status and glamour, which were identified by surveys up until the 1980s as the main motivation for donning the uniform, are evidently not enough in today’s India. Redressing this situation needs action on both sides of the civil-military divide.

The political leadership and the bureaucracy need to understand that issues over rank and pay are not just economic, but also about status and identity. Making every pay commission a long drawn out tussle with the military can hardly help. The military, for its part, needs to think seriously about how to strengthen its institutional identity in a time of rapid social and economic change. Ultimately, professional norms and values are a more important determinant of military effectiveness than any economic incentives.

Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research