Emerging change in civil-military relations?
A recently published monograph, co-authored by a group of liberal intellectuals, India’s Path to Power: Strategy in a Drifting World, includes a section on “politicization of the military”. The article says that there is a beginning of a shift in the apolitical character of the Indian military. The army staff must lead a rearguard action, lest the army also fall with other institutional pins.
The document apprehends that “the traditional apolitical position of the army is under pressure at two levels: the first, from the top military leadership, and the second, comprising the subordinate leadership of officers and persons below the rank of officer”. While the grassroots are sensitive to the shift in society at large towards majoritarianism, the upper management is under pressure from the push to the right in politics.
He observes confusion in the minds of senior military leaders between government and state [the executive and the Republic of India]. This disrupts the traditional distinction between loyalty to the Constitution and to the ruling party.
As for the base, according to the newspaper, there is an “attack on the secular vision of the armed forces by broader social and ideological currents”.
He foreshadows that political masters will likely continue to ride horses towards electoral victory, in light of the precedence of the partisan dividend. The government also carried out a “thorough selection” of high-level military appointments. Although this is a legitimate process, the flexibility or the same ideas could eclipse the competence.
While precise in diagnosing an impending problem, the paper is light – perhaps for space reasons – on the remedy: “This problem is an issue that military leaders need to introspect and rectify.” He believes that the responsibility of keeping an apolitical distance from a pernicious policy lies with a military leadership seized with the motto “Service before self”.
Curiously, on the continued need for an apolitical army, the newspaper says: “This responsibility of the military leadership is enormous because India is a nuclear power. It does not explain how India’s status as a nuclear-weapon state mitigates the apolitical military characteristic, which predates this status.
It is still worth repeating the questions that drive the section and trying to answer them: Do we need an apolitical army, and if so, how can we be sure?
India, although it continues to be a procedural democracy, has recently been referred to as an “electoral autocracy”. A supposedly authoritarian political regime can dispense with an apolitical army, which is only required when government control alternates between different political parties. The political project of the government obliges it to remain anchored in the capacity while the majority turn towards the mode is incomplete.
In such an endeavor, the formation in power needs the army as a subordinate ally. Compliance is facilitated by the fact that the military is enthusiastic about the advancing ethno-democracy, or influenced by a populist political leadership. The two lines of force for a docile army are at stake.
Ethno-democracy is a work in progress, which does not fail to try. Soon the military program will be injected with a touch of inspiration from ancient India. The concept of an apolitical army is a throwback to the 1950s, when the theory of military sociology in the West focused on how to subordinate the military in a democracy. Today, how does the chosen Indian tradition have it on issues such as the relationship of chakravartin with the senapati and the place of the army in the art of government is more important.
The Prime Minister has long sought opportunities to vibrate directly with the troops, his visits to Diwali on the front lines being an important vehicle for such insertion into their consciousness. In his last interaction with the troops on the Line of Control, while thanking them for the execution of the surgical strikes by the military, he expressed his continued concern for their safety during the strikes.
The brass obviously took the cue. A general recently approved an obsequious tweet on his party’s Twitter account greeting the prime minister on his birthday, only to remove it later.
Taken together, the two guidelines imply that there is no need to nurture an apolitical army in the new India. The problem that arises, as the document points out, is “a danger that a flexible military leadership will be used for narrow political ends to the detriment of national interests”.
Illustrations of such a principal-agent (government-military) relationship can be found in the Balakot and Ladakh intrusions. The price of such mutual scratching is often paid in national security matters.
Another illustration is Kashmir, where, by not denouncing the obvious aggravation of the problem, it presents an inaccurate picture of success.
While there is no call for this to be done in the open domain, there are no reports of the military hitting the table in dissent, even at the discussion stage.
The fact that the military gives credibility to the government’s favorite narratives helps absolve the government of democratic accountability, thus compromising a vital national interest: democracy.
It is easy to miss for the military, when, as the newspaper points out, “contemporary political and popular discourse systematically confuses the government with the state”. The army too is the victim of such an amalgamation. This reveals a blind spot in his professional military training.
Since the loophole benefits the ruling party, the political masters are unlikely to be affected. The military is also unlikely to straighten the tilt, which could put it at odds with the political masters.
Who will ring the cat? The opposition cannot be too loud about this, lest they drag the military into the political bubble. Strategic commentators can at best warn the national security establishment to advise political masters on the right path.
The danger lies in the problem culminating in the next national security crisis in the interval between the next elections.
The fact that these have a nuclear overhang explains why the document also curiously underlines the nuclear factor as convincing that civil-military relations remain stable.
Ali Ahmed is a former military officer. Views are personal
Photography Basit Zargar