India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, recently argued that India’s military is poised at the “cusp of a transformation”. He is absolutely right on this, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi deserves credit for unleashing the beast of reform within the military. India’s strategic community was pleasantly surprised when he unexpectedly announced the decision to create the post of Chief of Defence Staff on 15 August 2019.
However, when the mandate of the CDS was announced on 24 December, there was an even greater surprise because the CDS virtually got everything but the kitchen sink. The creation of a Department of Military Affairs (DMA), a previously unheard of initiative in India, empowered the CDS in an unprecedented and unexpected manner. However, this rush to reform must be carefully thought through and sagely handled — otherwise, its unintended consequences can cause significant institutional turbulence.
The need to have a CDS has been debated, with varying levels of intensity, for more than six decades. It is entirely to Modi’s credit, therefore, that India, without an immediate and precipitate crisis, is undertaking such significant defence reforms. His announcement of creating a CDS gave rise to two speculations.
First, which is still unanswered, is why did the Prime Minister at this particular juncture do so? Early on in his first term in office, PM Modi had identified defence reforms to be a ‘key priority’ but eventually made few substantive changes. What, therefore, was the specific triggering event that led to his decision to create a CDS? Was it a concern over defence expenditure and fiscal inefficiency, military operations like Balakot or Doklam, or was he spurred on to do so by his top advisers? At this stage, without an interview with Modi, we can only offer conjectures.
The second source of speculation centred on the powers of the CDS. PM Modi’s announcement to create a CDS led to a flurry of commentaries speculating whether this post would be an empowered one or a mere figurehead. On this, the prime minister’s office gave an emphatic reply — it has firmly empowered the CDS by, among other measures, creating the Department of Military Affairs.
The DMA is a completely new organisation that, to the best of our knowledge, has never been recommended by any previous reform committee. Surprisingly, there is almost no scholarship on defence reforms that even mentions this idea. Which brings us to another set of unanswered questions — how and why was the DMA conceived? The former is, as yet, unanswerable, but having recently written a book on civil-military relations, if I was to take a guess on the latter — the DMA was created primarily to give the military a seat at the high table.
Central fault in India’s civil-military relations
The central fault in India’s civil-military relations is not that of civilian control (a rare success for our democracy), but more about the relations between the bureaucracy and the military. After the 2001 post-Kargil defence restructuring, military reformers settled upon the reasonable idea of integrating the civilian and military bureaucracies by cross-posting officers.
However, it is entirely to the intransigence of the civilian bureaucrats that even this relatively minor reform could not succeed. The DMA, therefore, appears to be an initiative from the uniformed community to ensure that, by virtue of being a department in the government of India, the military gets to drive policy and not go through what they perceive as a meddlesome civilian bureaucracy.
This would all be well and good, but there are at least three potential pitfalls of this initiative. First, the DMA is a uniquely Indian institution as one fails to think of another democracy that has a similar organisation. This should immediately make us somewhat sceptical.
Second, the DMA is based on an underlying assumption that one can clearly differentiate between military and defence issues — which is entirely untrue. Both are so intertwined that any attempt to do so will only create inconsistencies and further turbulence.
Third, the military’s education policies and short and rapid tenure system does not augur well for its ability to staff the DMA. To be effective, the DMA would require military officers to tenet these posts for a duration of more than three years, at a minimum. However, that requirement does not comport with typical career trajectories in the military. More crucially, the military generally does not incentivise domain expertise and will have to properly think through policies to groom officers to assume such unique positions — which intersects civilian and military bureaucracies. There is no indication as yet that this is being done.
Neither here nor there
The main responsibility for crafting an appropriate organisation falls squarely on General Rawat who has his task cut out for him. While doing so, he has to attach utmost importance to creating an appropriate interface between the DMA, the services and the defence secretary.
The current reforms are very dynamic, but beyond media interviews, the CDS should perhaps focus on creating a vision document explaining the rationale, powers and role of the DMA (and the CDS itself) within the Ministry of Defence.
One structure, with obvious similarities, that might be instructive is the British system of higher defence management, but they have an intricate system of councils and boards.
It is right to assert, as General Rawat recently did, that India need not follow any particular model, but he has to articulate a management structure that is internally consistent and logical. If we fail to do so, then we risk having a military perennially poised at the cusp of a transformation — neither here nor there.
The author is a non-resident fellow at Brookings India and the author of ‘The Absent Dialogue: Politicians, Bureaucrats and the Military in India’. Views are personal.