The case of the Army Chief's date of birth has been laid to rest finally, in the judgment of the Supreme Court. Before leaving for a two-day trip to Saudi Arabia, the Defence Minister said that, "the government has confidence in the present chief and that was conveyed in the Supreme Court also. Everything is clear and we have confidence in him." He has followed up on his return sayting, "We have learnt the right lessons from it ... there is no strain."
The Chief, for his part, has also put the episode behind him, stating while on tour to the UK, "there is no controversy if you are meaning or implying a particular controversy." However, his statement alongside, "I followed a particular path for a particular aim and that was achieved", is pregnant with implications for the 'lessons learnt', referred to by the minister.
The Chief's statement apparently suggests that he set out to make clear to the bureaucrat-dominated ministry that their's is not the last word. If the episode is taken as a symptom of a problem in civil-military relations, the foremost lesson is to configure the apex system using the aegis of the ongoing Naresh Chandra task force deliberations to provide the government early impetus for reform.
Three longstanding problem areas exist in the national security system. These have contributed in some measure to the Date-of-Birth episode getting as difficult as it has. While by all accounts it is merely a 'personal' matter, the structural contribution cannot be ignored. Doing so would make its recurrence over time inevitable, if only in a different manner, but most surely as a higher order crisis in civil-military relations.
The apex military leadership needs social communication skills, political savvy, and democratic and collegial leadership acumen - skills more visible in board rooms than operations rooms.
Centralisation, reinforced by a command culture (resonant in the 'This has the Chief's blessings' argument!), detracts from effectiveness, leave alone efficiency. For instance, in the current case keen observers such as Rahul Bedi have reported a 'go slow' by the ministry on files emanating from the army. These maladies have been pointed out earlier, not least by K Subrahmanyam, but seemingly to little avail.
Secondly, is the issue of merit in the choice of the Chief. The long-standing criticism has it that the 'age' criterion detracts from merit and limits the choice to survivors of the steeply pyramidal hierarchy. This accentuates a 'play safe' attitude, with operational spill-over in possible command inadequacy in case conventional push comes to nuclear shove. The advantage of the system is that it preserves the apolitical nature of the military, since there is no incentive for ambitious members of the brass to catch the political master's eye. The case of General Kaul and Krishna Menon has set the precedent to avoid.
Given the multiple affiliations that Indians can forge on account of India's diversity, institutional cohesion could unravel. ONe aspect of the present case itself was the question of 'succession lineup', with the implicit suggestion that parochial affiliations were at play. In any case, the defence would be that there 'ain't no need to fix what 'ain't broke'.
This debate needs to be settled in favour of merit and youth. Stability and predictability have proven useful but these characteristics may not be the most apt ones in face of challenges of 21st-century conflict. This is a good juncture to move beyond the tried and tested, to adapt practices used elsewhere. For instance, Colin Powell and Petraeus reached their positions not because of seniority, but competence.
The characteristics needed by today's apex military leadership are not necessarily the traditional ones demonstrated so well by the Chief in his challenge: resolve and standing up for one's beliefs. Instead, the apex military leadership needs social communication skills, political savvy, and democratic and collegial leadership acumen - skills more visible in board rooms than operations rooms. In the case of the current Chief, he had no tenure at the Army Headquarters, other than a sheltered appointment in a former Chief's secretariat. Socialisation absent, he thought it fit to rock the boat.
The Indian military needs help in moving forward. In India's case, the military's 'holy cow' status ever since India over learned the lessons of 1962 means that this is unlikely until the issue acquires some momentum in public debate. Now is the appropriate juncture to start.
Thirdly, the abiding perception in service circles, voiced repeatedly in in-service journals and by veterans in seminar rooms, is that rules of business are such that the ministry is overbearing both in weight and attitude. The hollowing out of the Indian Police Service has lent urgency to the military's actions for self-preservation from the bureaucratic layer; otherwise the same fall may befall it too.
This acquires added importance from the military's professional obligation to provide security. In theory, the military is answerable to the the political heads, not an intervening bureaucracy. However, in practice the rules of governmental business have been devised in such a manner that the bureaucracy, in discharging its role of giving 'advice to the minister', has appropriated the policy space from him more or less fully. This has resulted in a sense of alienation among the brass, voiced by its former chiefs, such as Arun Prakash, that even the Chiefs do not have voice. The ministry does not appreciate this.
The structural remedy to this problem is in following other democracies - in integrating the two sides. This would bring the role of the Chief to the forefront, either as head of staff or as commander, and along with it the need for a Chief of Defence Staff. The current system would favour the Chief as commander, with the CDS heading the joint staff in an integrated ministry alongside the defence secretary. Arriving at the right choice is what will ensure Naresh Chandra, currently grappling with the issue, a place in history.
The mantra that India's military is apolitical has potential to lull political alertness and sensibilities. Even an elementary acquaintance with military sociology will reveal that militaries are political players as institutions. They have the ability and inclination to forge alliances in polity for consensus building on their national security concerns. The legitimacy for such behaviour is in their self-image as custodians of national security.
This does not necessarily imply partisan politics. However, if the civil war in South Block worsens, and the political scenario in the country vitiates for any reason, politicisation in a conservative-military semi-covert quasi-alliance can occur. The current 'game' of bureaucratic politics, explicable in organization theory, can yet get murkier at a national cost. The political role and ministerial responsibility at this juncture is therefore clear cut.
The happy fallout of this otherwise sorry episode can be in the form of new directions. Reforms that place the Chief inside the policy loop are needed
to help avert a future 'perfect storm' in such crises. It is better, as the old Arab fable goes, to have the camel inside the tent than outside it.