- Feb 23, 2009
Ajai Shukla: Muzzling the military
Newsprint and public energy have been expended this fortnight, both in India and Pakistan, in debating whether India’s Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor was belligerent and impolitic in telling his officers that China and Pakistan might band together for the next war against India.
The controversy still simmers as low-intensity media sniping. But it is important to note that this was about neither warmongering nor diplomacy. At a fundamental level, the dust-up stems from long-standing tensions within the Indian state over muzzling the military.
For those not in the picture, the controversy began with a Times of India news report, which had General Kapoor warning his officers in an “internal seminar” of the danger of a “two-front war”. The report failed to mention that a two-front threat had been the basis of India’s defence planning for decades. Security establishments in India, China and Pakistan know this well; but not the Pakistani press, which went wall-to-wall the next day with reports about Indian bellicosity.
Pakistan’s Foreign Office shot off a nasty comment about General Kapoor’s “hegemonic and jingoistic mindset”; and his opposite number, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani — clearly susceptible to Pakistani media pressure — began the New Year by threatening India with nuclear retaliation.
Next, The Indian Express entered the fray, reporting in a front-page story that the army chief’s verbal indiscretions were repeatedly embarrassing the government. Then, in the same newspaper, came an opinion editorial by K Subrahmanyam, the doyen of India’s strategists, castigating General Kapoor for lack of sensitivity, suggesting that all senior military officers be put through diplomacy school, and recommending that pronouncements by military chiefs on strategic matters be accompanied by the caveat that those were only personal views. The cherry on this cake was the insulting reminder that this was not Pakistan, where the army chief formulated strategy.
Such articles could be dismissed as nonsensical were they not accurate portrayals of the government’s approach towards the military. The genesis of this vitiated relationship lies in the political and bureaucratic insecurity of the post-Independence period, when democracies across Asia, Africa and South America were falling like skittles before interventionist militaries. Today, even with India’s military, acknowledged worldwide as laudably apolitical, that destructive relationship continues.
In contrast to India, other mature democracies impose far looser censorship over their militaries, without unleashing a monster. Samuel Huntington’s widely acclaimed theory of “objective control” of the military — a model of civil-military relations that is implemented almost universally — grants the services autonomy in their professional realm. A military that has ownership of its professional bailiwick, the “objective control” thesis postulates, has little incentive for involvement in the political sphere. Civilian control is not abandoned, but asserted mainly on broader political issues.
In contrast, “subjective control” rests on neutralising the military through restrictive civilian controls, extending civilian oversight into spheres within the military domain. Subjective control is predicated on “civilianising the military”, while objective control aims at “militarising the military”, encouraging professionalism and responsibility within its realm. That includes negotiating within the public domain.
When the British Army Chief, General Sir Richard Dannatt, felt that his forces were strained from sustained deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said so publicly, forcing his government into remedial measures. US generals talk publicly about their need for certain kinds of equipment or resources; America views that as democratic bargaining for budgetary resources.
But the Indian generals of today, intimidated and silenced by Ministry of Defence (MoD) diktats, would never dream of publicly standing up for their organisation. A succession of generals has silently acquiesced in sending lakhs of soldiers to face bullets in J&K without quality bulletproof jackets and helmets. No general has spoken out against the MoD’s repeated failure to buy modern defence equipment, while returning thousands of crores of unspent rupees from the defence budget. Clearly, silencing the military by invoking propriety keeps many skeletons confined to the cupboard.
But, even within such a dispirited community, a rubicon is crossed when the MoD looks away while an army chief is humiliated, including within Pakistan. No government statement has clarified that General Kapoor was discussing a possible two-front war to an army audience, in a closed-door planning session, in a high-security building next to his headquarters in Delhi. Nor was there support from Defence Minister Antony, who assured reporters that India was not a war-mongering nation. By not mentioning the army chief, Antony effectively indicted him.
Close to the end of his tenure, General Kapoor is under a cloud after failing to act decisively in a succession of scandals: from dubious procurements during his command in Udhampur, to the recent land scam allegedly involving his close affiliate. While investigating those unsparingly, the MoD owes support to a respected institution — the Chief of Army Staff — when it is under gratuitous media attack.
Tailpiece: A legitimate accusation against the army chief could be that his threat assessment is outdated. Today’s threat, for which the military must plan, is of a three-front war. Besides the two unnamed countries, an internal front could be required against Pakistan-sponsored militants in Kashmir and a coordinated Naxal offensive.
Ajai Shukla: Muzzling the military