General elections or elections of Generals?

  • Ramachandra Guha
  • Updated: May 24, 2015 00:56 IST

Visiting India in 1961, the writer Aldous Huxley found it ‘almost infinitely depressing’, overwhelmed by ‘overpopulation, underemployment, growing unrest…’ In a letter to his brother, Huxley wrote that ‘when Nehru goes, the government will become a military dictatorship — as in so many of the newly independent states, for the army seems to be the only highly organized centre of power’.

Note the emphatic tone: when Nehru goes, the government will become a military dictatorship. Nehru died — three years after Huxley came and went — but India did not then — or later — abandon the principle of civilian rule. In this respect it is unlike many other countries in Asia and Africa — such as Myanmar, Ghana, Nigeria and Indonesia — where the army has played an influential and often predominant role in political life.

India’s success in this regard is most striking when we compare our post-independence trajectory with that of Pakistan. Despite our shared history and culture, as part of the same British Raj, in one country the army has scrupulously stayed away from politics, whereas in the other it has actively intervened.

A convincing interpretation of these divergent paths is provided in an impressive new book Army and Nation, by the Yale political scientist Steve Wilkinson. Wilkinson adduces several key reasons why India went in one direction but Pakistan in quite another:

First, a difference in the social bases of the major political parties in the two countries. The Congress was supported by a large section of the peasantry and middle class across India. It was consciously federalist in character, giving due representation to different linguistic and ethnic groups. The Muslim League, on the other hand, had a narrow elitist base, composed of large landlords and professionals. The League proved a weak counterweight to the Pakistani army, whereas the Congress was too powerful and deep-rooted for the Indian army to think of challenging;

Second, whereas in Pakistan one province massively dominated the army, this was not the case in India. The British had recruited very heavily from the Punjab during the two World Wars. When the country was divided and the army partitioned, Punjabi Muslims came to account for a staggering 72% of Pakistan’s army. In India the share of Punjabi Sikhs and Hindus was also quite large — about 20% — but by no means overwhelming. Meanwhile, the Indian government also sought to ‘rebalance’ the army by recruiting from other parts of the country traditionally underrepresented, and by creating large paramilitary units to take away some of the army’s duties;

Third, the issuance of clear directions from the political leadership to the army reminding it of its subordinate place. Wilkinson quotes a remarkable letter written by Jawaharlal Nehru to the British commander-in-chief (C-in-C) in August 1947, which stated: ‘In any policy that is to be pursued in the Army or otherwise, the views of the Government of India and the policy they lay down must prevail.’ If an Army officer found himself ‘unable to carry out this policy, he has no place in the Indian Army, or in the Indian structure of Government’;

Fourth, a symbolic downgrading of the army’s status in official life. During the Raj, the C-in-C was the second-most important man in India. His house was the second-biggest in New Delhi, next only to the Viceroy’s. Now Nehru moved into this house himself. After independence, the army chief reported to a civilian defence minister, who in turn was accountable to Parliament, the prime minister, and the cabinet. Meanwhile, the Constitution of the new republic placed the army chief as low as 25th in the warrant of precedence. cabinet ministers, governors, chief justices of the Supreme and High Courts, were all ranked higher than him.

To these four key reasons underlined by Wilkinson one might add two more. First, the accident of history and of geography, whereby, unlike India, Pakistan emerged as a frontline state in the Cold War. In the 1950s, when the Soviet Union edged close to Afghanistan, the United States enticed Pakistan with an arms pact, drawing it closer to itself. In the 1970s, the Pakistan army helped America mend fences with China. In the 1980s, it became active in the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. All through, the Pakistan army, bolstered by an apparently unending flow of dollars and weapons from Washington, steadily expanded its economic and in time political footprint.

Finally, the Pakistan army’s rise has also been facilitated by the fact that it remains the main avenue for individuals of talent and ambition. In India, on the other hand, with its more open political system and its more dynamic economy, a clever and ambitious young man can become a successful lawyer, doctor, entrepreneur, or politician. Over time, these professions have become far more attractive than the army, leading to a severe shortage of applications for the officers’ cadre. In Pakistan, however, a young man seeking to acquire wealth, status, and power often still sees the army as the best option.

It may be that in India, civilian control of the military has sometimes gone too far. As Wilkinson himself notes, the indifference to the technological requirements of the army shown by Nehru and his defence minister VK Krishna Menon led to the fiasco of the China war. Later defence ministers have undermined efficiency and morale by interfering with the process of promotion into the senior ranks.

That said, on the whole we must count ourselves fortunate that we have escaped the fate that — 50 and more years ago — Aldous Huxley so emphatically outlined for us. For, too many countries in Asia and Africa have had their economies undermined and their polities corroded by the excessive influence exercised by men in uniform.

(Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India. You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha. The views expressed by the author are personal.)

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