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Civilian Control Ties Up Military

India will have to return to some basic answers: the size of the military, the balance between its components and the nature of civilian control

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It is often said that India’s defence policy is crippled by a lack of will, and a new political leadership would recognise the problem of financial shortage and devote adequate funds to the three services. However, the “lack of will” seems to have now infected the current regime of PM Modi; the defence hawks provided enormous support initially, but now regard his policies as soft to the core.

Their confusion as to motives is based on a triple misreading of the defence policy process. Addressing this problem is shaped by the fact that the three services have not made any progress towards reconciling their differences that the civil-military balance is fundamentally anachronistic and the decision to have a long-term nuclear deterrent — one along the lines prescribed by K. Subrahmanyam nearly 20 years ago — makes achieving both conventional and nuclear deterrence impossible.

Thus, it is no surprise that the military stood by and watched during the two real crises that occurred in the recent past. The first was at Gurdaspur, the second took place at the IAF forward base, Pathankot. The India response was exactly what the dovish PM Manmohan Singh, would have advocated: India should do nothing. No service, was ordered to act.

What is the reason for this dysfunction between words and deeds? PM Modi is as concerned about a military confrontation as the next person—perhaps even more. But he understands two things — that geo-military concerns are replaced by geo-economic ones and in a crisis, Japanese and American money coming in would stop. This is what happened during the 1990 crisis —the prospect of a nuclear war scared off investment.

Modi’s preferences are clear: he does not want another international crisis this year or next, and will do whatever he must to avoid one. This may be easier said than done, but his military will have to take its turn and wait. This analysis would seem to be contradicted by the PM’s own rhetoric. From the beginning he has advocated a strong and powerful military. The Make in India programme seems to be designed to break ties with foreign suppliers of hardware, and the new defence production guidelines are vigorous and real.

But these programmes are largely conceptual and the Ministry of Defence is still a long way from accomplishing them. The typical IAS officer has only a rudimentary familiarity with his charge; this is a branch of the civil service whose major task is to contain the military, not liberate it. The restraints on the Armed Forces remain as tough as ever before, even if the rhetoric flows freely.

So, how does India manage the next few crises? If Pakistan pushes India into a war, they would certainly lose, but the Chinese could present India with a war they might win. It is hard to predict what the American response will be, even as India will draw upon American sources, without making its dependence complete. This does not, and should not, make India an “ally” — natural or otherwise. The sum total will increase slowly, while politicians manage relations as best they can.

India will have to return to some basic answers: the size of the military, the balance between its components and the nature of civilian control. There is no good model for a State like India, and America awaits developments in India as much as India hopes to find them. The Modi approach is a welcome change, but defence reforms are only at the beginning.

The author is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington DC, and author of several books on India’s security concerns and challenges

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


Stephen Cohen

The author is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington DC, and author of several books on India’s security concerns and challenges

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