The military, the media and the MoD
A veneer of civility: the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister with the three service chiefs at the combined commanders' conference earlier this year.
by Ajai ShuklaBusiness Standard, 30th Nov 10
If the military's response to the battering it has taken from a series of scams and scandals, which has been to stand about looking dazed, is any indicator of how it will behave in combat, let's not go to war. In case after recent case — e.g. the Sukhna land use allegations; the CAG's observations about troops being supplied outdated rations; the fake encounter in Machil, J&K; and the Adarsh housing society scam — the media has bombarded the military with a dizzying barrage of fact and fiction, while the defence PR machinery has done nothing to limit the damage.
Disempowered by the generals and ignored by the media, the PR managers are mere spectators.
In their place, top generals walk out to bat on this crumbling wicket and find themselves predictably bowled. On Saturday, the IAF boss, Air Chief Marshal P V Naik, while visiting the National Defence Academy Kharakvasala, responded thus to media interrogation on the Adarsh Society: "My message is not to get too influenced by these things. Only 1 per cent of the people are involved."
This is not just statistical naivetÃ©; 1 per cent of a military that has 1.8 million persons would add up to 18,000 corrupt people. More worryingly, it highlights the top brass' apparent belief that they can simply brush off the growing public suspicion that venality is pervading the top levels of military command.
But there is a deeper structural reason behind the military's abject surrender of a reputation for honesty that has been won over generations: the troubled relationship between the military and the Ministry of Defence (MoD). With the latter having arrogated to itself complete control over the military's public relations, the MoD cell that handles the forces' public interface focuses not on the military's image, but on Defence Minister Antony's. Headed by a competent joint secretary rank officer, with representatives from each of the three services, the MoD's PR office has not, even in the face of the current media assault, masterminded any attempt to limit the damage or to shore up the military's public image.
It would be shocking to suggest that the MoD deliberately undermines the military's image. Nevertheless, the recent crises have illustrated that the MoD's PR office does not advise or work with the generals in managing or limiting media-inflicted damage. This was most evident at the height of the Sukhna land use investigation, when the MoD's PR machinery was assiduously relaying details of Mr Antony's squeeze on the Army Chief, General Deepak Kapoor, even as the latter appeared to be oblivious to the built-up media pressure.
So why, the intelligent reader would query, does the military not get around to managing its own image? The answer: the army tried, but was shot down. Early this decade, the Army Liaison Cell (ALC) was created as an interface with the media, but the MoD quickly emasculated that body, circumscribing its role to render it incapable of managing day-to-day media relations, far less conceiving and implementing a sustained image-building programme. The air force and the navy quickly got the message and decided against setting up parallel structures.
Watchers of the Indian military will recognise a historical continuity in the MoD's curbing of the ALC. India's pre-Independence equilibrium between the viceroyalty, colonial bureaucracy and the military was transformed in 1947 into unmistakable domination by the newly-born "freedom-fighter" polity, which used the bureaucratic instrument to exercise a stranglehold over the military. This political-bureaucratic alliance has instinctively quashed the ALC, which it views as the army's unacceptable attempt to assert jurisdiction over the crucial realm of public relations.
If the three chiefs were really intent on safeguarding the interests of the army, navy and the air force, they would jointly demand from Mr Antony the right for India's most respected public institution to manage its own image, rather than reserving their combined advocacy for issues relating to remuneration and inter-se parity with the bureaucracy. Renewing in the public mind the Indian soldier's traditional associations of izzat (respect) and imandari (honesty) would far better serve the jawan than a few hundred rupees.
For this to happen, the military needs to accept and internalise that the new activism of the Indian media is indeed corroding its public image. The services must develop a more sophisticated understanding of media functioning, which can only come from working within the media for sufficient periods. But "embedding" future PR officers within the media, perhaps for one-year or two-year secondments, has not even been considered by the military, far less the painful process of pushing such revolutionary ideas through an unwilling bureaucracy. Despite the enterprise and ingenuity of the average army colonel (full disclosure: I was one such!), the army's PROs who are pushed into the ALC for two-year tenures struggle to adapt to an unfamiliar and hostile environment rather than successfully fashioning the military's image.
It seems likely that — given eroding societal and public mores and increased activism of the Indian media (leaving aside for later a discussion of the media's own mores) — the military will face a growing clamour of allegations of wrongdoing, many of them founded on truth. With the MoD's current PR set-up, oriented towards the ministry rather than the military, the absence of military PR structures could cause painful and avoidable damage at the hands of media kangaroo courts.
This is not to suggest that many of the recent allegations against the military are baseless or motivated. What is needed is to recognise the malaise and to counter it effectively, not pretend that the issue is so insignificant that it will melt away by itself. Despite the evident decline on the battlements, the foundations of the military remain strong. It is this message that a new breed of PR managers must effectively convey.