Grand Tamasha

Anit Mukherjee on the ‘Absent Dialogue’ Between Civilians and the Military in India

Episode Summary

Milan and Anit chat about civil-military relations in India, its impact on defense capabilities, and the prospect of reform under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Episode Notes

Over the years, one could fill a small library with books that have been written about how Indian democracy survived against all of the odds—inequality, poverty, a difficult neighborhood, and a sprawling geography. Somewhat surprisingly, however, very few books have been written about the role the military has played—or not played—as it were. Many of India’s neighbors have experienced military coups and some, like Pakistan, have been unable to shake near-constant military involvement in daily political life.

And yet, all is not well when it comes to civil-military relations in India. This is the argument of Milan’s guest on the show today, Anit Mukherjee, who is the author of the brand new book, The Absent Dialogue: Politicians, Bureaucrats, and the Military in India. Anit is a professor at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore who also just so happens to be a former officer in the Indian Army. Milan and Anit chat about civil-military relations in India, its impact on defense capabilities, and the prospect of reform under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Episode Transcription

Intro:                                     00:00                     "Unabashed" "The most unpredictable" "becomes a headline." "The most volatile" "outrageous behavior." “Unsubstantiated narratives" "A battle of personalities."

Milan Vaishnav:                00:11                     Welcome to Grand Tamasha. I'm your host Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Over the years, one could fill a small library with books that have been written about how Indian democracy has survived against all of the odds, inequality, poverty, a difficult neighborhood, and a sprawling geography. Somewhat surprisingly, however, very few books have been written about the role the military has played or has not played as it were. Many of India's neighbors have experienced military coups and some like Pakistan have been unable to shake near constant military involvement in daily political life, and yet all is not well when it comes to civil military relations in India. This is the argument of my guest on the show today. Anit Mukherjee, who is the author of the brand new book, The Absent Dialogue: Politicians, Bureaucrats and the Military in India. Anit is a professor at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore who also just so happens to be a former officer in the Indian Army.

Milan Vaishnav:                01:01                     Anit joins me in the studio today for the very first time. Anit, welcome to the show.

Anit Mukherjee:               01:06                     Thank you, Milan. It's delightful to be here. Thank you for having me.

Milan Vaishnav:                01:09                     So, so gracious. Before we get into the Indian case, which is the subject of your book, you know, help set the stage for us. How has India's military fared when it comes to sort of upholding the basic tenants of democracy, you know, at a 30,000 foot level. I mean, especially when you compare it to, you know, the other countries in the South Asian neighborhood.

Anit Mukherjee:               01:30                     That's a great question. I think on this, the answer's pretty simple. It has succeeded very well, right? And it's not just the Indian armed forces, it's also India's democracy, which has succeeded, which has actually had successful control over the armed forces. And I think to kind of analyze that we can, we can argue that there were three factors that made it possible. Firstly, there was strong political emphasis on civilian control. I would look at the first kind of a prime minister who was extremely insistful about that. Secondly, I think they also undertook some coup-proofing mechanisms. And this comes out beautifully in the book by Steven Wilkinson. And thirdly, I think within the Army itself, there was a emphasis on being apolitical, right? And they said we are not going to interfere in the democratic affairs of the state. And so as compared to you know, most other postcolonial democracies have struggled with civilian control. On this aspect, I think India done fabulously well.

Milan Vaishnav:                02:31                     So, you know, the central claim of your book as I understand it, is that, you know, there is a pattern of civil-military relations in India and that has a direct bearing on the effectiveness in the military. And the way in which civil-military relations has played out despite all of these successes has actually compromised to a certain degree, that degree of effectiveness. So I want you to help us kind of characterize what that pattern looks like. I mean, the title of your book is, you know, "the Absent Dialogue what is that absent dialogue really about what is it that's gone wrong? That scholars seemed to have missed in describing how the civilian world interacts with the military world?

Anit Mukherjee:               03:10                     I think among the issues that India deals with is that there's too much emphasis on control and there isn't enough emphasis on the flip side of control, which is effectiveness. So the Indian state and the political establishment and the bureaucracy actually still emphasizes control as in which I think is an important kind of a first order issue, right? I mean, if you don't have control, you're not a democracy. But this emphasis on control, overlooked, overlooks effectiveness. And so I argue that if you look at other democracies also after they have established firm control, they start emphasizing effectiveness. And the first order issue is control. The second order issue is effectiveness. And in India's case, although we have successfully achieved the first order issue, we haven't focused as much on the second order effectiveness. So to answer your question about the pattern per se and the absent dialogue argument, I say that, look, I mean the political establishment a. Does not know as much about the military and has, has stepped back from interfering in the affairs of the military because they're strong domains. Two, there's a strong emphasis on bureaucratic financial control over the armed forces. And three, there's a fair degree of autonomy in the armed forces over its own affairs and and a combination of these three adversely shapes the effectiveness of the Indian military.

Milan Vaishnav:                04:38                     So on the one hand, there seems to be a bit of a paradox here because you're saying, you know, civilian control is required to have a consolidated democracy, right? We sort of know that from the scholarship in democracy yet there can be something as a kind of smothering control on the one hand. But then on the other hand you say, you know one of the parts of the absent dialogue is that the military has considerable autonomy over activities that, that fit kind of squarely in its domain. So it seems to be sort of too overbearing in some places, but actually under bearing and others. Is that a fair assessment?

Anit Mukherjee:               05:12                     Yes, I think that's completely accurate. And it's an issue I've struggled with because I think it is in some ways kind of paradoxical, right? You can't have strong bureaucratic control and autonomous and autonomy in the armed forces itself. But I think you, you kind of described it well that on the one hand there is strong control on issues like weapons acquisition or on issues like defense planning, but there is not enough control on issues like doctrine formulation or force structures or force modernization and so or even kind of jointness or office education. So in some ways, as others have argued this, the interaction is depthness, right? I mean it's almost like proforma institutional interaction which does not focus as much on outcomes.

Milan Vaishnav:                06:05                     But do you think this is a function of the military turning to the civilian side and saying, look, this is our domain just butt out? Or is it more a function of the fact going back to something you said earlier of just the lack of kind of military expertise and knowledge of the military within the civilian bureaucracy?

Anit Mukherjee:               06:23                     I think it's both, right? Because the military as it exists in all countries wants maximum autonomy, right?

Milan Vaishnav:                06:31                     Right, I mean, that's not a new thing, right? That would be true in America or any other country.

Anit Mukherjee:               06:34                     In any other country. They just want as institutions, as organizations, as, as individuals, they just want maximum autonomy. But I also think the lack of expertise creates more space for them to argue that actually you don't know anything about our domain. Allow us to operate as we deem fit. And so this expertise I think is among the crucial sort of issues that emerged from this book. Right. And but I think on this expertise also, right?

Anit Mukherjee:               07:02                     I mean, among the big takeaways I had was the difficulty in growing civilian expertise. Right? And if you, and the sort of takeaway I took was how do you grow expertise amongst civilians in the armed forces? And here there's a more fundamental problem in India, which is a lack of declassification processes. So as, as a rule, the Army Air Force and the Navy does not have a process by which it declassifies primary documents. And although it seems like a small bureaucratic procedure, but I think it's a very important and under emphasized aspect. And I was affiliated with IDSA, the Institute of Defense Studies and Analysis in Delhi from 2009 to 2011. And as I was there as trying to I came up with a perfect catch 22 which was why does declassification not happen? Right? And so I used to go up to the Army officers and I say, why don't you declassify your papers?

Anit Mukherjee:               08:02                     And they used to say we are willing to do so if the Ministry of Defense gives us an order to do so. Right? And so I go up to the MoD official and I say, why don't you, you know, give the orders to the Army to declassify their papers? And the answer was only the classifying agency can declassify and the classifying agency is the military itself. So I came across this perfect catch 22 wherein it's nobody's jobs and nobody's business to declassify. And although you might think that's, you know, a small concern for academics, but I think it prevents it prevents the development of expertise.

Milan Vaishnav:                08:36                     So you mentioned kind of three critical components in this absent dialogue, right? You have a lack of civilian expertise on military issues. You have an institutional design where by the military is kind of under the strong bureaucratic control, right? Heavy hand of the state. And then you have military autonomy over activities, you know, it sees are it's domain. Now we have just celebrated India's 72nd anniversary. And so I think the obvious question to ask is, you know, these aren't new problems right Anit? You know, why do they persist? Surely, you know, others inside of government, outside of government, such as yourselves have observed this up close and personal. You know, why do you think that change has been so hard after seven decades?

Anit Mukherjee:               09:19                     I think for three main factors, firstly, I think the understanding in India, there's a lack of an existential threat. That although there are problems with the form of civilian control we have people back in Delhi think it's efficient enough to deal with the threats that we face. So they do not think that there's an existential threat to India from China or Pakistan and they can afford - they don't want to relax the form of control that they have. And in the ways to emphasize effectiveness. Secondl-

Milan Vaishnav:                09:50                     And that, that sorry to interrupt you, but the inability to identify an existential threat is - that's true even despite the fact that we have nuclear competition in the subcontinent.

Anit Mukherjee:               10:02                     Yes. because I don't think the Indian politicians think of like the nuclear bombs as weapons of war. Although they are, are preparing, I'm sure to deal with contingencies, but they do not really think of nuclear war fighting being kind of waged itself out. Right. the other thing is I think it has a low salience in electoral politics, right? Defense policy making is just so complicated and complex an issue that it does not have as much of a salience. So the political establishment as such, does not want to invest in building up knowledge and to push this to push this idea of emphasizing effectiveness of the armed forces. And the third aspect is a reluctance to change the status quo. And I think because the current status quo is suitable for all stakeholders, it's suitable for the military because they enjoy autonomy. It's suitable for the civilian bureaucracy because it has some form of control and does not have accountability. And it's suitable for the political establishment because it can shrug off the responsibility for kind of military debacles. So there's a reluctance to fundamentally alter the kind of status quo.

Milan Vaishnav:                11:20                     So, you know, one statistic that you talk about in the book that I found quite telling, and it was new to me, is that less than 1% of currently serving Indian members of parliament have served in the military. So I looked up the equivalent statistic in the United States just out of curiosity. And it turns out that 18% of members of Congress who are currently in office today are military veterans. And what's amazing is that's actually down hugely from just a few decades ago. I mean, in the wake of the Vietnam war three in four, 75% of members of Congress were military veterans. So I guess the question that I put to you is, you know, how can politicians set good policy when it comes to the military if they're so clueless about the ins and outs of what goes on?

Anit Mukherjee:               12:03                     That's a great question, Milan. I don't have an answer to that. Right. I think even in the United States, among the things that we saw is when you looked at the debates prior to the Goldwater-Nichols Act, the politicians relied on scholars slash entrepreneurs to get information and to actually push the arguments out. In India's case, since we do not have that sort of scholarly entrepreneurs, we don't have civilian scholars well-versed in the affairs of the military, politicians are unable to discern good military advice and bad merger advice. So they go back to relying on the armed forces to be told what they should be doing. And that is, that does not kind of serve the country well because they will give self convenient advice. So in India's case, it's not just the lack of of the, it's not just a lack of experience in the political class of being in the military. It's also the absence of a civilian scholarship on the affairs of the armed forces.

Milan Vaishnav:                13:12                     Which is something that's an issue outside of government.

Anit Mukherjee:               13:14                     Yes.

Milan Vaishnav:                13:14                     Um but it has a bearing on what happens in some.

Anit Mukherjee:               13:17                     Yes, yes, sure.

Milan Vaishnav:                13:18                     Um so if you look back at history, you know, if you have a chapter in your book where you sort of characterize the patterns of civil-military relations under previous Indian prime ministers, that was a really interesting snapshot kind of you, you, you move relatively concisely through various regimes and interestingly, despite her many foibles and well known but well publicized weaknesses, Indira Gandhi, the comes across as perhaps the best rated prime minister when it comes to military affairs in your judgment. Now this might strike some of our listeners as a surprise. Tell us why she's rated a success.

Anit Mukherjee:               13:53                     So I enjoyed that chapter a lot because I did a fair bit of archival work and I looked at five wartime prime ministers: Nehru, Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, and Vajpayee. And in my assessment Indira Gandhi was the best wartime commander in part because unlike, as it's popularly believed, right - I mean the popular explanation is she gave a lot of autonomy to the military to plan out their activities and the operations for the Bangladesh war. Actually what I found out was that's not totally true. What the civilian establishment was doing under her, the bureaucracy and others was actually forcing the military and the services to work together. So she took a far greater interest in the affairs of the armed forces than is popularly believed and I think there are two episodes that came out clearly. Firstly, she was by her father's side during his experience with the military up to the 62 war and she was by his side all the time. I think that gave her an opportunity to learn good and bad points from her father. But the other interesting thing I saw was eight months after the Bangladesh War where India won so convincingly she gave a top secret directive to her army chief asking him about the state of defense preparedness. Now this is someone who has just won an overwhelming victory and she's immediately concerned about the state of defense preparedness in the country. That I think tells us a great deal about her concern with the armed forces and defense policy making.

Milan Vaishnav:                15:30                     So you've just given us one reason why dynastic politics is a good thing for India.

Anit Mukherjee:               15:34                     Laughs.

Milan Vaishnav:                15:39                     No, but it is interesting, right about coming to this question of effectiveness which is, you know, in some sense the central outcome that you're, that you care about. You mentioned it's really hard to quantify, you know, what effectiveness is. So essentially you kind of take one step back and say like, here are five things that we know are correlated with effectiveness, right? So defense, procurement, jointness the ability of various services to work together, you know, educating, training the military you know, how you handle promotions and then you know, how you plan for defense contingencies and so on. And I think your argument is that, you know, the absent dialogue as you put it has had a material impact on each of these aspects. And you know, I wish we could talk about all of these, but we don't have that amount of time. So let's just focus on, you know, the first one, which is about defense procurement. Because frankly, in places like Washington DC, where we're sitting, this is one of the most important issues that gets a lot of airtime, right? If you talk to American bureaucrats in the defense establishment, they talk about the delays, they talk about the red tape, they talk about the bureaucratic maze. When it comes to defense acquisition. Could you kind of help us understand how the absent dialogue actually has a negative impact on the acquisition of new defense capabilities?

Anit Mukherjee:               16:55                     So each of the chapters in the book examines each of these five attributes empirically. So it's a deep dive into weapons acquisition, defense planning, jointness officer education officer from. In terms of weapons procurement per se, I argue that look among the problems we have in India is that the military is not really influential in the procurement process. And what we have in effect in India is a, is a dissonance between DRDO, which is Defense Research and Development Organization and DPSU, which is Defense...

Milan Vaishnav:                17:32                     The Public Sector Undertaking.

Anit Mukherjee:               17:33                     Public Sector Undertaking. Sorry, that just slipped me by. And so you have a difference in between those who are doing research and those who are doing the production of the defense equipment. And because it's a state owned enterprise, there's no competition per se. And because the Ministry of Defense actually controls both the DRDO and DPSU, there's an incentive on their part to keep giving them contract, right? To keep them alive so as to speak.

Anit Mukherjee:               18:02                     And because the military is, is not that influential or is marginal to the outcome of it, it's not able to actually shape the acquisition processes. So I've compared the thing that occurs in other countries, right? Brazil, China for instance, and in both and UK, U.S. also. And in all these countries we see evidence that if you bring the military into the room to have a discussion on who do we do, who do we give the contract to, who do we take the contract away from? It makes for a better outcome output. Right. And an India's case. Since we are not doing that, since the civilians are the ones who are controlling the weapons procurement process, it creates inefficiencies.

Milan Vaishnav:                18:46                     And you think that the system just persists because there's a certain amount of path dependency or kind of, you know, people are kind of set in their roles. So civilians now look at this and say, look, the military has never had a voice at the table, so why should we introduce one now?

Anit Mukherjee:               19:00                     Yes, I think to a significant extent this has been continuing, right? It's is path dependent.

Milan Vaishnav:                19:05                     You know, one of the larger lessons of the book that it brings up for India. And I think probably the study of civil-military relations more generally is that, you know, any attempt to kind of create separate civilian and military domains historically is actually really poorly served both the state in the military. And I think this might strike some as counterintuitive given the need to make sure that the military doesn't have an overbearing influence on the civilian, that you kind of want to partition them, right? There's almost like a church-state separation, but, but you argue against that. Tell us a little bit why about putting these things into different buckets just doesn't work.

Anit Mukherjee:               19:42                     I think the fundamental argument against it comes from Clausewitz, right? Clausewitz argument that a war is a continuation of politics by other means. So if you create two very separate domain of politics and the military, then you might not be able to fashion the military or shape the military to serve the political purposes, right? And so that's among the the kind of main argument of why you should not create two sort of different domains. But it goes even beyond that, right? It goes into saying that if you look at the military itself, it's not monolithic, right? It's composed of different tribes. And these tribes are, if you were to imagine it, Army, Air Force, Navy, but even within the Army, Air Force, Navy, there are other different tracks, right? I mean there's the infantry there's the armor there's the artillery or there is the fighter pilots and the kind of helicopter pilots. Now these tribes as, as as tribes do, they fight over resources, right? And as other scholars have shown, what we need is civilians to actually intervene and arbitrate these tribal fights to actually create a, what would be the best fit for the missions expected of the military. Now when you have two separate domains, this process does not happen. And an India's case. I think there's a huge difference between what the political want and what the military itself wants and that creates inefficiencies within the military.

Milan Vaishnav:                21:07                     So I want to kind of end this conversation by bringing it to the present day. In his Independence Day speech this year, Prime Minister Modi announced a much debated reform. You've written about this, the creation of a single Chief of Defense Staff that will help to bridge inter-service rivalries and differences. In your view, how big is this reform and you know, what principles or guidelines should kind of inform the government as it kind of tries to implement this decision?

Anit Mukherjee:               21:38                     Well I should begin by saying that I'm disappointed he announced that just three months before the book was published. I can take then no credit for saying that he was influenced by the book. But no, I think this is among the biggest initiatives and this is the demand from the time of Mountbatten. So you have to welcome this announcement and I think that the prime minister has said it in no uncertain terms is a very significant, and it's very encouraging. But I also think it's important to actually look at the implementation of the chief of different stuff. And I think there is a danger that we might have of him just appointing a CDS without really empowering this official. So to put it, in other words, it might be a naam ke vaaste, which is, you know, a proforma kind of appointment, right? And if they do that, and if they just do it like a tick the box of, I've appointed the Chief of Defense Staff and I've moved on and I've done a defense reforms, it will not be enough.

Anit Mukherjee:               22:30                     So what needs to happen is not just creating a chief of defense staff, but actually empowering this office and this officer to actually break through the single service dominance that exists within the military. But that's just one aspect of it, right? I mean, we not only have to talk about military reforms, we actually have to talk about reforming the Ministry of Defense, which I argue is among the least transformed bureaucracies in the Indian stage. Right? And if you look at the MoD, I think it's, it's, it, it's, it stays in a different era. It stays in an era where India was afraid of being spied upon, where India was afraid of losing its security interest. And it does not globalized itself enough. And I think, so it's not just about creating a Chief of Defense Staff, it's also about examining the capacity and the competency of the Ministry of Defense to truly emerge as an institution that can engage with the military in partnership with the military to increase the effectiveness.

Milan Vaishnav:                23:28                     And is that something that you see any signs of? I mean, I think, you know, there's been a lot of talk from this prime minister about how India should be not just a balancing power, but a leading power. Right? He has quite an ambitious agenda both at home and abroad. Generally speaking, I think analysts have been disappointed with the amount of time the prime minister and his government have spent on administrative reforms. And this could potentially be one piece of that. I mean, do we see any nascent signs that they understand this is a priority issue and that they're going to take steps to kind of try to tackle it in their second term in office?

Anit Mukherjee:               24:02                     So that's an interesting question because if you look at the first term in office, the prime minister made a very good, in fact a very forward-leaning speech in December, 2015, about different reforms. He spoke about all the things that people have been arguing for about jointness, about cutting the tooth-to-tail ratio, about emphasizing on on kind of fighting capabilities. But if we were to dispassionately analyze his first term in office, it was not that great in terms of defense policy making. Right? And it's not just me saying that. Others have also argued it. He had, he had three different kind of Defense Ministers in power. And so if we look at the outcome per se, it was holding his first term in office, comparing him to the speech he made in December, 2015. It was not as he had promised he would do. So I think it's interesting that at the beginning of the second term he is, he's announced that he will do a big bag backward, a big bang reform, right?

Anit Mukherjee:               25:03                     That the kind of Chief of Defense Staff. But I think the jury's still out on whether it will be truly transformatory. And so it will be interesting to see on where is he being driven on this defense reforms process? Is it something that he learned from Balakot and the day after because the insiders know what happened, right? I mean, all of the Indians would claim that, you know, they succeeded on both days fabulously. But those on the inside know, right? And I think there might be something to that, right? I, I don't know enough because this is too much of a contemporary event, but I think it'd be interesting to see what are the prime minister's motivation to create a Chief of Defense Staff and is he only going to stop at that or is he going to push it beyond and say that, look, it's not just a deed, it's not just the Chief of Defense Staff. It's also about transforming the Ministry of Defense.

Milan Vaishnav:                25:54                     My guest on the show today is Anit Mukherjee who is the author of a brand new book called The Absent Dialogue: Politicians, Bureaucrats and the Military in India. My colleague Ashley Tellis who's been a frequent guest on the show, calls it a splendid examination of how the pathologies of India civil-military relations ultimately undermine its military effectiveness. Anit, thanks for coming on the show. Hope you'll be back soon.

Anit Mukherjee:               26:13                     Thank you so much, Milan. Thanks for having me.

Outro:                                   26:19                     The Grand Tamasha is a co-production of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Hindustan Times. You can find us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Don't forget to rate and review. It helps others find the show more easily. For more information about the show and to find the writing we referenced on this week's episode, visit our website Production assistance comes from Megan Maxwell and Rachel Osnos. Tim Martin is our audio engineer and Lauren Dueck is our executive producer. Thanks for listening and see you next week.