Use of generalist advisers in the place of experts in ideating India's defence policy has served to only convolute the process
The Absent Dialogue or mutual non-comprehension amongst the major stakeholders of India's defence policy was discussed at a forum convened by The Brookings Institution at IIC earlier this week in which author Anit Mukherjee laid out the major propositions of his research followed by a discussion with a distinguished panel comprising former COAS, General Mallik, former Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra, MPs Rajeev Chandrashekhar and Manvendra Singh with Barkha Dutt as the anchor. This column is based on thoughts emanating from this 'dialogue'.
Anit Mukherjee proposed that India lacked a coherent defence policy because of the mutual distrust amongst the key stakeholders and that the institutional dialogue was marred in the turf war, especially between the soldiers and the ministry of defence. While soldiers had a clearer vision of military doctrine and strategy, they were not given the space to put their views across to the political executive, mainly because the political leadership took advise from the generalist specialist, who knew little about the subject and together (the bureaucrat and the political executive) were more interested in ensuring that the procedure was followed and that no questions should be raised concerning to their probity in the utilisation of funds. This often led to inordinate delays in decision making and acquisition was, therefore, a major casualty in the process. Mukherjee felt that this emanated from the unfounded fear of a military coup immediately after Independence, especially due to the experience of many newly liberated countries (Pakistan, Indonesia, Turkey) gave credence to this maxim. Krishna Menon's world view and his deep distrust of the uniform did not help matters, for he was a 'monologue man'. However, even as democracy has found firm roots in the country and civilian control is well entrenched, the challenge was to move towards a doctrine of military effectiveness and efficiency. This was possible only if a strategic culture emerged, one which looked at India's defence capabilities, not just in a reactive mode but also in terms of what the world's third-largest army with a nuclear option in hand should aspire for.
Both the Members of Parliament, Rajeev Chandrashekhar and Manvendra Singh had direct connections with the army – both had grown up in cantonments and were familiar, not just with the rank structure but also with the debates around the relationship between the armed forces and the MoD. Mukherjee did stress the point that unlike the US Senate and Congress, where veterans were represented in large numbers, the Indian parliament had few people with an experience of having served on the frontiers. However, Sanjay Mitra pointed out that this had to be taken with a pinch of salt. From subalterns like Subhash Ghising to COAS JJ Singh, it is not necessary that the political route adopted by them would reflect a careful, nuanced stand on issues concerning India's defence. Mitra also pointed out that whatever may be said about institutional arrangements, including the CDS, in actual life, it was the interpersonal equations that made all the difference.
While welcoming the CDS as a good first step, General Mallik felt that it stopped short of giving a direct role to the uniformed personnel in defence policy. He was particularly concerned about the extant rules of business of the government under which the 'civilian defence secretary' was still responsible for the defence of the country. Even Mukherjee raised the issue of the generalist IAS dealing with almost all departments where (in the counter-view) domain knowledge was relevant.
This columnist is of the view that there is a major misconception about the role and responsibilities of a Secretary to the Government – both in the centre and the states. The specialist/domain view in every department, from agriculture to health to education and defence, does and must come from those who are technically qualified to address the issues and concerns. Each department must prepare the annual budget and the minister's speech, provide the inputs for cabinet meetings, respond to queries in parliament and resolve interdepartmental and intrastate issues. Having a common cadre of people who have an experience which cuts across silos has stood us in good stead. If the departmental secretary parrots the line which the specialist has to offer, why have her there in the first instance? In the Westminster model of governance, which we have adopted, it is clear that the decision-making triad will have the political, civilian and the specialist perspective. If personalities and prejudices get intertwined and the results can be disastrous. Again, governance is not about individual excellence and one-upmanship (General Sunderji was indeed quite sharp) but about the ability to carry everyone along and there are innumerable examples from our history to show that our strategy is driven by personalities, rather than issues, and as the entire panel agreed, in the event of a crisis, all the stakeholders came together seamlessly.
However, the point is not to brush the issue under the carpet and Mukherjee has done well to raise the uncomfortable questions. While one can differ with him, especially about the role of the 'civilians', his suggestions for opening up this subject for rigorous academic discussion, opening up the vast archival material and the involvement of think tanks, media, government and Parliamentarians are certainly welcome. We need to move ahead to understand each other better and this was also the recommendation of the Kargil Review Committee. This column has reported on the last JCM where among other things, the issue of energy security and the national defence was taken up. Institutions like USI and IDSA, think tanks like ORF and The Brookings India and literature festivals like the Chandigarh Military History Festival and the Military History and Strategy platform at Valley of Words are all contributing to the dialogue!
I also take the liberty of recommending the book (which I have not completed yet) to the readers so that an informed dialogue is initiated! But let me share some incidents from history. Morshed Quli Khan, the revenue governor of Mughals for the Suba of Bengal shifted his capital from Dhaka to Murshidabad precisely because he did not like to be seen with the Faujdar ( military ) governor! And Curzon too had a running battle with General Kitchener, and in both these cases, the dialogue was not absent, it was acrimonious!
Dr Sanjeev Chopra is the Director of LBSNAA and Honorary Curator, Valley of Words: Literature and Arts Festival, Dehradun. Views expressed are strictly personal
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