Creating a new framework of civil-military relations | Analysis
The current model has hurt military effectiveness. The CDS announcement is a historic opportunity to reform it
Civil-military relations, as the name suggests, is an academic term to describe the relations between civilians and the military. It is a basic feature of a democracy which, by definition, is one where civilians control the military. This is not a matter to be taken lightly, as most post-colonial states have struggled with controlling their military. By this metric, India has much to be proud of, as the military has never threatened the political order, contested coup rumours notwithstanding.
However, India’s model of civil-military relations has overly focused on procedural control, which has come at a cost. Simply put, this form of civilian control has had an adverse impact on its military effectiveness. Perhaps Prime Minister Narendra Modi had this in mind, when he recently announced the creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), which is rightly hailed as among the most notable reform of higher defence organisation.
However, such reform must be accompanied by significant institutional redesigning, including transforming the ministry of defence and the service headquarters. Without this, civil-military relations, as noted by members of the strategic community, will continue to be the primary fault line in India’s national security.
That India has a strange form of civilian control has been noted by almost all scholars who have studied it. In the mid-70s, the late Stephen Cohen noted the paradox of a “crushing civilian dominance over a very powerful and large military”. This aspect was also observed by later generations of scholars and practitioners, including K Subrahmanyam, Stephen Rosen, Admiral Arun Prakash, General VP Malik, Steven Wilkinson, Ashley Tellis, and many others.
In a recently published book, I show how this pattern has adversely shaped five processes most closely associated with military effectiveness — weapons procurement, jointness (defined as the ability of the army, air force and navy to operate together), professional military education, officer promotion policies and defence planning. To uncover these processes, I relied on a combination of archival research and over 200 interviews with politicians, bureaucrats and military officers.
Within the military community, civil-military relations is framed by the leitmotif that they are under bureaucratic control, and not political control. This refrain captures some of the resentment that military officers feel about having to constantly engage with what they describe as an uninformed and obstructionist bureaucracy. Such a view, however, is overly simplistic as it ignores two essential points.
First, it is unreasonable to expect politicians to gain expertise on military affairs, as politics is a full-time vocation.
Second, democratic civilian control and administrative governance requires a civilian bureaucracy to assist the defence minister in carrying out their duties.
That is not to say that the military’s complaints are totally unjustified. There are enough instances of uninformed civilian officials exerting petty forms of bureaucratic and personal control.
These two different narratives reveal a deeper paradox — that of a suffocating civilian bureaucratic control in some matters, but also too little civilian intervention in others. For instance, in matters pertaining to jointness, officer education, doctrine formulation, and inter-services prioritisation, civilians are invisible in their participation. Author Verghese Koithara’s memorable term, a “depthless interaction” best describes civil-military relations in India.
These problems stem from two essential factors that characterise this interaction.
First is the problem of institutional design. In India’s case, the ministry of defence is almost exclusively manned by civilian officials and is bereft of military expertise. In turn, the service headquarters are almost exclusively manned by military officers and do not allow for adequately qualified civilians to assist them. This arrangement inevitably creates an “us and them” sentiment.
Way back in 1958, the architect of India’s higher defence organisation, Louis Mountbatten, had noticed this peculiarity. In a private letter to Krishna Menon, he had observed that the “Ministry of Defence is full of civil servants with practically no representation from Service Officers at all, whereas the three Service Headquarters appear to have a lot of officers with very little help from the professional civil servants.” Unfortunately, not much has changed over the last 70 years.
The second is the problem of expertise. India’s generalist system of administration does not allow for expertise in its civil servants. Domain expertise has been debated since the First Administrative Reforms Committee in 1967 and has been a frequent bugbear for those studying state (in)capacity in India.
More worrying, however, is how can one grow expertise in military affairs when there is no existing procedure for declassification in the military and defence ministry? Indeed, this seemingly simple bureaucratic procedure is responsible for stifling the growth of strategic studies in India and needs urgent remedy.
Despite much talk, little was done to redress higher defence reforms during the last National Democratic Alliance government between 2014 and 2019. To be sure, there was a definite improvement in the tone and tenor of civil-military relations from AK Anthony’s mishandling of the defence ministry, but structural problems remain.
With the imminent announcement of the CDS, there is perhaps a once-in-a-generation opportunity to address the principal fault line dividing civilians and the military. It remains to be seen, however, if this government can do so.
Anit Mukherjee is the author of The Absent Dialogue: Politicians, Bureaucrats, and the Military in India (Oxford University Press, 2019)
The views expressed are personal