In the run-up to the Presidential elections in the US, a number of veterans’ names have come to be associated with both the Presidential Nominees; General Michael Hayden, former CIA and NSA Director has endorsed Donald Trump, as has Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, former DIA Director. Similarly, Admiral James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander was briefly being considered as Hillary Clinton’s running mate. As the armed forces were seemingly getting embroiled in the political fight, the current Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford wrote a powerful article stressing on the need for the armed forces to stay away from the melee and not to politicise the military.
In his article, General Dunford reminded his men to conduct themselves in a manner to reassure the next administration of being served by an apolitical military, while continuing to exercise their right to vote for the candidate they chose, yet guard against the institution being politicised by way of their conduct in public. He stressed upon the long American history of an apolitical military upholding the principle of civilian control, starting from General George Washington resigning his commission. In more recent times, General Dwight D Eisenhower has also served as the President of the US, after having served his country as Army Chief of Staff and Supreme Allied Commander NATO, retiring in 1952 before running for President.
The Indian armed forces have long prided themselves for being apolitical, even to a fault- and continue to remain subservient to the elected representatives of the people, under the principle of civilian control. Yet many events force us to scrutinize this under a lens. Historically, controversy has dogged the armed forces, sometimes bordering on endangering national security.
Whether it was General Thimayya’s controversial resignation as Chief of Army Staff due his differences with Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon which was withdrawn later with the Prime Minister’s intervention, or Lieutenant General BM Kaul’s appointment as the Corps Commander owing his proximity to Prime Minister Nehru and held responsible for the Indian debacle in the 1962 Sino- Indian War, the armed forces are no strangers to interference by the political hierarchy. Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat who had himself sought redress by the courts in his appointment as Fleet Commander, was later sacked by the Defence Minister George Fernandes for allegedly showing ‘defiance of civilian authority’.
Then there is the case of General VK Singh’s age issue which put him at loggerheads with the government of the day. Even the ongoing tussle between the present Chief of Army Staff General Dalbir Singh with the officer slated to be the next Chief, Lieutenant General Praveen Bakshi, ostensibly due to the present incumbent being from the Infantry and the next one from the Armoured Corps, has begun to take political overtones. In the bargain an officer of known calibre and professional acumen, Lieutenant General DRN Soni (also from the Armoured Corps) has become the object of machinations to keep him from Army Commander appointment.
Amidst all the brouhaha one fact remains as an undercurrent; the growing politicisation of the armed forces. The veracity of this is ascertained by the highly uninspiring leadership at the top levels of the military hierarchy; more and more one hears rumbles from the rank and file about the senior leadership failing to provide motivation to their troops. This is also amply demonstrated by the recent dissatisfaction among the armed forces with regard to their pay and status. It was left to the veterans to take up the issue with the government and led to a string of emotionally charged scenes with the veterans going so far as returning the medals awarded to them for their service to the nation. Does this call for an introspection? What further compounds it is the organizational ethos which stifles criticism at lower levels.
In his 1970 book, “Exit, Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations and States”, Albert O Hirschmann has argued that voice can be made the mechanism of feedback for an organization. He says that criticism is a healthy thing and to encourage it means to enhance growth prospects. Whereas limiting criticism both overtly or by covert means, often expressed as culture or innuendo, would limit the ability to present alternate viewpoints or dissent. This is harmful to the organizational growth in the long run. This is the malaise that seems to be hurting the Indian armed forces. And it stems from this growing politicisation at the senior leadership levels.
That it is harmful in other and more diverse ways can be understood by the importance given to civil- military relations in a democracy. The principle of civilian control is underlined by the fact that the civilian leadership depends heavily on the inputs it receives from its military advisors. The quality of this advice depends on the integrity of the decision making and execution processes. This very reliance is undermined by the lack of a moral dimension which is a natural fallout of allowing political interference in the armed forces. Lieutenant General James Dubrik, US Army has commented on the moral dimension of strategic competence wherein he stresses upon the quality and integrity of senior military ranks as a precursor to the decisions taken at strategic level by the civilian leadership.
Writing about the US army, (but what certainly seems to be apt for the Indian armed forces as well) he further advocates the empowerment of junior leadership, but rightfully also points out that the army has not taught and reinforced seniors leaders who empower. In one thesis thus, he brings out the two dimensions imperative to healthy civil- military relations; namely, looking at inward growth and having an upright moral character to outward competence. (Closer home, seminal work in this field has been done by Anit Mukherjee, currently a Professor with the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore, and formerly an officer of the Indian Army).
If the US example is anything to go by, the DePuy reforms in the 1970s hefted substantial responsibility for adding professionalism to a force which was humiliated post Vietnam and faced growing opprobrium back home. It tackled not only issues related to training and administration, but delved deeper in to the experiential and creative realm, and helped put in place structures designed to identify, nurture and advance the best for future generations of leadership. Most of the contemporary generalship of the US owe their careers to this tumultuous period. However, this very senior leadership is now calling for yet another set of reforms to cater to the generational shift in the past 40 odd years since the DePuy reforms.
Is it time for the Indian armed forces also to look inward and institute a mechanism more in keeping with the paradigm shift that has taken place amidst us? The growing aspirations (at all levels) will further compound the problem of politicisation both from within and without. It appears critical to reform and indeed vital to the health of the armed forces. In the long run, it would only enable better civil- military relations and strengthen the foundations of democracy. De-linking the military from politics is crucial to this aim. It may serve the armed forces hierarchy well to remember the following words by General Joseph Dunford:
“As military professionals our most important asset is the trust and credibility with the (American) people. While we must safeguard our professional integrity, extra vigilance is required during any political transition”.
*Vishakha Amitabh Hoskote, MPHIL, MA (International Relations, Political Science, Development