Now is a better time than any other to hold the mirror to India’s apolitical military and examine ways to arrest any fraying. But before using that mirror, it would be prudent to have a concept of what politicisation of the military implies. At the macro-level, any judgement on politicisation of the military community has to be weighed in the balance of its role in domestic politics.
The constitutional standard is clear. India’s armed forces owe their loyalty to the Constitution of India that is symbolised in the President, who is the Commander-in-Chief. This emblematic relationship of the military with the State sits alongside symbolic separation from the government. The President is the custodian of the constitutional values of the Republic of India. The government and its executive arms are its trustees. The system is so designed that as long as the orders have presidential assent, the military cannot question it.
The main threat to democracy is the military usurping the presidential powers and becoming the political custodian of a republic. This possibility can never be fully discounted and therefore the apolitical nature is an institutional value that is carefully nurtured by the armed forces. Ultimately, it is a value best preserved by the personal example of its Chiefs.
A possible dangerous shift
Structurally, with Theatre/Joint Commands, the probability of the military taking over is considerably weakened. Currently, the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) has directly under his command over 14 lakh personnel. No operational commander in the world has such privilege, in terms of sheer numbers. With implementation of politically mandated reforms, the control of military power that is now concentrated will be distributed over multiple theatre-based power centres.
The other type of threat to an apolitical military could have a civilian source and is nurtured when the separation between politicians and the military — who are both trustees — is narrowed down. It can lead to a marriage of convenience between the narrow self-interests of partisan politics and the military. If the marriage of convenience is blessed by the constitutional custodian, the threat assumes its most toxic form. It is also no secret that several key institutions that are expected to provide checks and balances for the government who are acting as trustees, have been politicised for long. Such an amalgamation can be lethal to democracy. An imagined danger, however unlikely, in times of deepened internal domestic political discord, is the feasibility of political misuse of the military with the latter playing along as a willing partner. Whether such threats will come to pass and how they will be dealt with will depend upon the military leadership, especially of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and the Chiefs.
Until recently, one of the safeguards of protecting the apolitical orientation of the armed forces was through a political tradition of minimum interference by politicians in the selection of military leaders to the higher field ranks. The system was always tailored for the political leadership to exercise their choice from a panel based on eligibility and seniority. In practice, there were occasions when the political leadership exerted themselves and seniority was bypassed. But it was rare. In the period between 2014 and 2020, supersession for appointment of CNS, COAS and CAS has transpired, which perhaps indicates a shift in the norm. This could result in military leaders, especially those in the run for appointment as Chiefs, attempting to seek political patronage.
Military and the ministry
The perennial defining question for the military mirror is whether or not the highest military leadership is party to the weakening of its apolitical institutional culture. Eventually, it is the example being set by senior military leadership that can, to a significant extent, determine the ethical texture of the military’s relations with politics in India. Even the contemporary common practice of serving senior military leaders regularly thanking the Prime Minister in public statements is ethically questionable and carries the odour of pliancy.
Often, the central and ethical question for military leadership when carrying out orders and instructions is whether the institution is being misused for domestic party politics. This is never an easy judgement to make but any unease felt on this count should be discussed with political heads behind closed doors. It is very rarely that India’s politicians override professional military advice, if articulated, and that remains the bulwark against politicisation. The onus, however, is on India’s military leadership, which must, even use resignations as a tool to register their disagreement if necessary. This is especially so because, India’s politicians across party lines have by now tasted the potential gains that accrue from taking credit for military achievements, which was a major plank of the election campaign in 2019.
The Nehruvian political outlook towards the military eventually resulted in India’s civil-military relations becoming skewed by politico-bureaucratic emasculation of the military in the garb of civilian control. Hopefully, with the creation of the CDS and the Department of Military Affairs (DMA), military effectiveness should improve. But the jury is still out on how the increased presence of the military in the Ministry of Defence will impact its apolitical culture. Earlier, the resistance to the enlarged military presence in the ministry was rooted in the suspicion of weakening civilian control of the military. This argument remains valid but the choice for the recent reforms was pivoted on the belief that sufficient control can still be exercised and much more will be gained by the reforms towards developing and applying military capacity.
An ethical shield
The reduced distance between the military and the government due to the creation of the DMA, ushers in a possibility of the ruling party and military cosying up. This is best dealt with if the narrow self-interests of the military leadership and political parties are never allowed to conflate. Both sides have to be responsible for its prevention. The military being an instrument of the political leader in power is meant to be utilised for protecting national interests. The political interpretation of national interest could be a victim to narrow political outlooks. The challenge for the military leadership will always be to fathom political motives and, despite conflict of interest between protection of the apolitical value and personal ambitions, not allow the military to be utilised for narrow politically partisan acts of self-aggrandisement.
The evolution of India’s civil-military relations has indicated sturdy civilian control over the military. The pertinent question here is whether such control can be misused for purposes of domestic political power play. This can be handled by the military only through the ethical shield. Going by the current trends, India’s domestic politics is likely to enter a deeply contentious phase and it seems likely that the military leadership might have to often look in the mirror and ask – am I being just human or a human in uniform? Spirit of the uniform demands suppressing of personal interests. This, in turn, entails that the spirit of sacrifice forgoes self-preservation.
The motto of the National Defence Academy from where the armed forces derive most of its leaders is Service before Self. The nation’s demand from the armed forces cannot fully be met unless the military’s ethical shield is woven from a different fibre of self-preservation than the politicians’.
Lt Gen Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution, Bengaluru, and former Military Adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)