An important focus on lack of political will and adequate communication regarding defence matters.
Effusive blurbs on the back cover of a book are often misleading, but in this case words such as splendid, excellent, definitive and enlightening are appropriate to both describe and commend Anit Mukherjee’s meticulously researched book, The Absent Dialogue, which sheds valuable light on a vital strand of India’s higher defence management that has received little serious study.
Derived from his doctoral dissertation on the opaque subject of how civil-military relations are braided in India, Mukherjee, who served briefly in the Indian army, refers to his second stint in Kashmir when insurgency had peaked and how as a junior officer various questions about ‘military effectiveness’ continued to nag him and his peers. For the olive-green community, the conclusion was stark:
“The leitmotif within the Indian military was clear—it was paying the price, often in blood, for weaknesses on the civilian side.”
However, is the reality of India’s civil-military relations as binary and stark? Seeking cogent answers to this question formed the core of Mukherjee’s academic pursuit and the book under review is the distillation of copious research that examines three central questions: How does a developing country create an effective military that is not a threat to its democracy? Can a state exercise civilian control and, at the same time, maximise the effectiveness of its military? Or is this a zero-sum game where one comes at the cost of the other?
Dwelling in the main on the uneven interaction between politicians, bureaucrats and the military in India, the author surveys the major civil-military crises in India, beginning with the very anomalous and almost bizarre media report of an Indian army mechanised infantry battalion and a parachute battalion moving towards New Delhi in mid-January 2012 and the storm it created. Preliminary reports suggested that the local army commanders were not in the loop and that this movement had been ordered by army headquarters.
Perceptions about an impending military coup became even more animated since this event took place when the Army chief at the time (General VK Singh) had made a personal representation against the civilian government in the Supreme Court. This event remains opaque to date and is one of the many instances that highlight the ‘dysfunctional equilibrium’ in the civil-military relationship (CMR) in India.
Is there a universal golden template to CMR that can be held up as a model to be emulated? The answer is in the negative, for each state and society evolves its own contour and a certain status quo emerges based on the distinctive history, strategic culture and the political trajectory of the country in question. Samuel Huntington’s model of ‘objective’ civilian control is cited, and the manner in which it unspools in India’s tangled CMR since August 1947 to the Balakot operation of 2019, provides the backdrop to this interrogation of the three questions.
Mukherjee’s more important formulation is about the ‘absent dialogue’ between the three stakeholders of higher defence management—the politician, the bureaucrat and the soldier—and how this pattern “compromises the effectiveness of the military”. The author posits that the ‘absent dialogue’ has arisen due to three factors—“lack of civilian expertise on military issues at both the bureaucratic and political levels; an institutional design wherein the military is under strong bureaucratic control; and considerable military autonomy over activities that it considers to be within its own domain”.
Finally, after 283 pages that diligently review deeply-embedded narratives about CMR in India, false promises apropos self-reliance and weapons procurement, elusive jointness, inadequate professional military education, promotion patterns, wobbly defence planning and contemporary discourses on CMR, Mukherjee arrives at an exceedingly grave and import-laden conclusion. The author avers: “In sum, the weaknesses in the Indian military should not be blamed on civilian bureaucrats or on senior military officers but on the political leadership and its management of the military.”
Reiterating what the late K Subrahmanyam—doyen of Indian security studies—had once observed about the Indian political class not being able to tackle national security issues with the “seriousness they deserve”, Mukherjee signs off on a bleak but accurate note. His pithy summary about the single-biggest takeaway of his magnum opus is “that the absent dialogue is primarily because the (Indian) politicians are unwilling to engage in one”.
One had used the word copious to describe the considerable research that has gone into this book and this is borne out by the over 1,100 footnotes that burnish this volume. Little-known nuggets have been deftly woven into the narrative and these include the anxiety of a coup soon after PM Lal Bahadur Shastri’s tragic demise in January 1966.
This was triggered by acting PM Gulzarilal Nanda’s call for a detachment of the Border Security Force (BSF) to be sent to Delhi, which, in turn, was interpreted by Indira Gandhi as an ‘attempted coup’ by Nanda. The plot thickens in an almost comic manner when later Nanda justified his directions to the BSF to ostensibly “prevent a military coup”.
The fear of a military coup is a recurring anxiety that lurks in the Indian civilian collective and Mukherjee documents an episode of March 1966 involving defence minister YB Chavan and Army chief General ‘Moochu’ Chaudhuri, and the latter reassuring the minister that “a coup was inconceivable”. For the diligent reader who will refer to the relevant footnote, what would seem ‘inconceivable’ by today’s norms is that the Army chief recounted this conversation to the British High Commissioner in Delhi, who predictably conveyed this to London.
In a nuanced but perceptive postscript, Mukherjee touches upon the manner in which major political parties led by the BJP have in recent times prioritised national security and the soldier for electoral gains. Cautioning against this opportunistic wooing by political parties that is taking the Indian military into ‘uncharted territory’, the author prudently notes that “this close embrace of the military by political parties and their potential dalliance is a cause for alarm”.
Mukherjee is to be applauded for this valuable contribution that so ably punctuates the void of an ‘absent dialogue’ in a critical area of national relevance.
C Uday Bhaskar is director, Society for Policy Studies, New Delhi