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Wednesday, November 04, 2009


The Army Chief has said, "US has not allowed a second 9/11 to happen. Indonesia has not allowed a second Bali bombing to happen. India has allowed people to get away after the Parliament attack, the Delhi blasts and finally the 26/11. It's time for all of us to say no more." In light of weightier civil-military relations issues in question, that both analogies are inappropriate is not worth a pause. But first a consideration of whether this is indeed a defining juncture in India’s civil-military relations.

The context is the forthcoming anniversary of 26/11, which India would like to traverse without incident. The urgency owes to the situation in Pakistan worsening. It is possible that the government is putting the pressure on Pakistan to rein in the jihadis to the extent it can. This explains the Home Minister’s earlier warning, “I'm warning Pakistan for the last time. If Pakistan attempts to send terrorists into India again, India will not only foil those attempts but also give them a crushing response.” Such a ‘good cop-bad cop’ routine helps balance the prime minister’s extending a ‘hand of friendship’ to Pakistan on his trip to the Valley late last month. The Chief said this in the presence of the Minister of State for Defence. News that the latest terror plan, bust by the FBI in the US, was to target the prestigious National Defence College, was perhaps the provocation. The statement of the present Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee is in keeping with precedent of policy influencing pronouncements set by the previous COSC Chairman, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, in his address at a National Maritime Foundation lecture recently – the statement in question then being on India’s China policy.

But is India capable of such finesse in signalling? Answering this question in the ‘affirmative’ would mean that treating the Chief’s statement as a departure in civil-military norms as an attempt at generating a conflict where there is none. Since whether there is a plan to the government’s moves cannot be known with any certainty, giving the benefit of doubt is warranted. The government is using the Chief’s broad shoulders to unmistakably convey to Pakistan that India is poised precariously on its proverbial ‘tolerance threshold’.

Nevertheless, even as an academic exercise, its worth probing what the juncture implies. Keeping civil-military relations under scrutiny periodically helps keep militarization in check and democracy in good health.

Firstly, the statement was at a CII-Army seminar. This indicates the vested interest corporate India, and external arms dealers, have in arming India. The Minister of Defence having indicated that India is likely to spend $ 50 billion over the middle term, this is not surprising. Of consequence is what this implies for policy choices. This can only be to facilitate military expenditure in pursuit of capabilities allowing India to prevail in case of exercise of the military option, an inevitability since the Chief has spoken.

Secondly, with the Home Minister and the Chief having in their utterances sealed India’s policy choice, whether it is the right one needs questioning. Higher end options, such as war, can be ruled out for the very reasons that have stayed India’s hand earlier. These are economy, US presence and the nuclear overhang. However, surgical strikes on any of the list of 5000 targets that the Air Force Western Command boss has said they have drawn up, is possible. This could perhaps be supplemented with Army action across the Line of Control, so that all services have a piece of the action. Would this make sense in a situation in which Pakistan finds itself in currently? The expectation that India can pull off a mini Israel style punishing strike is to mistake a nuclear armed state with Palestinian non state actors. Since madrasas can reasonably be expected to be part of jihadi training complexes, bloodied madrasa children on CNN would make for a avoidable political debacle.

Thirdly, in case India has not foreclosed its options, then credibility of the minister and the Chief, and in turn that of India, would suffer. With credibility at stake the pressures for the military option would increase. This would be in addition to right wing pressures that would be strident, in the hope of regaining the ground lost in recent electoral battles. Therefore, even if the option is open, it has been virtually foreclosed.

This brings to fore the most important implication. Can the military pronounce on policy choices? It can discuss and advise on options. Making choices in democratic systems are patently a political prerogative. Military positions on issues command credibility that a government would find hard to challenge. The leaking of the MacChrystal report is an example from civil-military relations in the US. In the current circumstance, were the government to choose the saner option once again, it would fall foul of the opinion, albeit inadvertently generated by the Chief’s remarks, in favour of an overtly militarised response.

While not over dramatising the juncture, any lessons it has can only serve deepen India’s democracy and military professionalism.

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