The snarling between the military and the bureaucracy continues. It appeared as though the matter was settled, with the Supreme Court ruling in favour of the government in the case of the age of the Army Chief. However, the uncivil war that broke out in South Block - in the form of motivated leaks - between the babus and the brass continues to unfold on prime time.
Varied explanations have been offered for why we are seeing this controversy. One is that the Chief, since he did not get a year's extention, is a 'frustrated man'. Second is the good-versus-bad story: a corruption-fighting Chief battling it out with the usual suspects. The third theory is as old as the Army itself, the tussle for supremacy between bureaucracy and the military. Finally, there is the view that the Chief is exposing a dithering 'Saint' Antony, who has happily prioritised honesty over everything else, and left the Army without arms and ammunition.
The actual problem is in differing strategic perspectives between the civilians and the military. The differing perspectives have led to the civilians going slow on defence acquisitions and stymieing the military's preferred response of expansion in numbers. The divergence is also evident elsewhere - in the military's position on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), its incidence in Kashmir, and on the question of demilitarisation of Siachen.
Given that democratic civil-military relations require subordination of the military to the civilian, the military's insistence on its views amounts to a challenge to the principle of civilian supremacy. However, in this the Army has been emboldened by precedent - whenever it has held fast to its position, the civilian leadership has eventually accepted it, so why yield now? The natural escalation of this cycle is a military that has stepped out of control.
The military, necessarily and universally conservative and realist, has a threat perception of a 'clear and present' danger in the form of a 'two front war'. This has been upscaled by the collusion between China and Pakistan, going back to the 1980s in the nuclear and missile fields, most visible lately in the presence of Chinese troops in Gilgit-Baltistan. The possible military use of infrastructure created by the Chinese has the military similarly fixated.
Its answer has been to ask for additional forces. While the ministry has granted two divisions, forming up now on the eastern front, it has been less amenable to clear the mountain strike corps. The military wants this for making gains elsewhere as trade-off against the gains China will likely make in any military contest.
The military wants to sit in judgment of its own views, not only in this case but also in AFSPA, Siachen, and other instances.
Their concerns are reasonable. India is already putting in place various capabilities by building roads and resuscitating air strips in the border areas. Anything more than this would only trigger a reaction by the Chinese, leading to a threat to India where none might have existed in the first place. India, wanting to concentrate on its economic growth trajectory, does not want to get diverted. An arms race would make India incline towards the US, which is wary of China's rise, at the cost of Indian autonomy.
This concern has spiked the Chief's pet project, the 'Transformation' study done by him in his last appointment as army commander in Kolkata. The project explains why the Chief's was so keen for an extension of his term - which would have allowed him to remain at the helm long enough to see it through. Its critical element of adding 86,000 troops, which has been held up for financial reasons, is attributed instead to bureaucratic obduracy and political ignorance. Therefore, the fightback, showing up the bureaucracy and its political master in poor light by pointing to their tardiness in acquiring machines and ammunition.
In this, the military wants to sit in judgment of its own views. This is also the case with AFSPA; one can argue that this law is not needed at all in India's counter insurgency arsenal. The military has been firm in its position that the Act's provisions are indispensable not only to its deployment but also its effectiveness. One can concede that this is a professional view, but the fact that the military does not want to permit prosecution of its officers who violate the people's rights suggests that its influence is much wider.
This can be seen in the stand-off in court in the Pathribal case - in which the CBI's view is that the deaths amounting to murder cannot be covered under the AFSPA, but the military will not allow a single prosecution, because allowing any officer to be charged with violations will lead to a precipitate drop in morale and effectiveness of the military. Faced with this and unwilling to countenance political solutions to its insurgency problems, the government has been reticent in confronting the military. It can easily be predicted that the amendments to the AFSPA now being introduced for discussion by legislators will be the next arena of contest.
Next is the case of Siachen. Here too the hardline position is evident. The government wants to progress peace talks with 'doable' issues like Siachen and Sir Creek being tidied over and providing momentum for and trust necessary for tackling the more fraught outstanding issues in composite basket. The military has repeatedly put its foot down, nipping any initiative to turn Siachen into a 'peace park' as once envisaged by the prime minister.
We must also not ignore the 'Cold Start' doctrine that the military autonomously conjured up. The capabilities are to enable it to take off for operations well inside Pakistani territory. This denies the political head the requisite time for engaging in crisis management and diplomacy. This attempt at commandeering the political decision space has led to a predictable response from the politicians - who simply thwart the military's plans to build up this capacity. The military is striking back by labeling this as 'holding up' the capacity building exercise, but conveniently forgets that this was not approved by the political leadership in the first place.
Too often the military has carried the day in these essentially political decisions. This suggests not only that the political class has abdicated its role, which is bad enough, but also that military expansionism is the norm, and that is much worse. The problem is structural. Perceiving itself as outside the policy making tent, the military tends to dig in.
The answer is to integrate the military into the ministry. Unless the distinction between the uniform and safari suit is removed, the civil war will continue. The
Naresh Chandra task force currently working on the specifics of next steps in defence reform, needs to complete its job urgently.