The need for a lesson in civil-military relations

The Congress’s demand that PM Narendra Modi apologize to the Armed Forces does not fit with the idea of civilian control over the military


Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

It seems the first round is finally over. But given the schedule of the forthcoming state assembly elections, more rounds of my-surgical-strikes-versus-yours are expected between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress party. Defence minister Manohar Parrikar has been widely panned for saying that “Indian troops were like Hanuman who did not quite know their prowess before the surgical strikes”. There have also been banners put up by workers and allies of the BJP in a bid to gain political advantage from the surgical strikes.

Meanwhile, the Congress party has, expectedly, attacked the BJP for politicizing the valour of the Armed Forces. But it has done the same by releasing a set of dates on which it claims the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government had conducted “surgical strikes”. The Congress has also demanded that Prime Minister Narendra Modi “apologize to the Armed Forces … and publicly vow to never make political capital of army’s sacrifice.”

Both these demands make one wonder if Indian politicians need a basic lesson in civil-military relations. After all, asking the prime minister to apologize to the Armed Forces does not at all fit with the idea of civilian control of the Armed Forces. Samuel Huntington in his classic work, The Soldier And The State, describes two types of civilian control over the military: subjective and objective. Both types aim to minimize the power of the military in relation to civilians. While objective control is about building a professional military and officer corps, subjective control involves “maximizing the power of some particular civilian group or groups”. Objective control does not disproportionately benefit one civilian group/institution over the other; subjective control presupposes some degree of military involvement in politics.

While perfect objective control seems an attractive goal to strive for, its attainment is neither viable nor desirable. Not viable because no clear distinction can realistically be made between the politics of civilian groups and the professionalism of the military. As Carl von Clausewitz’s famous dictum goes: “War is merely the continuation of politics by other means”.

If war is political, then its rewards are political too. And therefore different civilian groups/institutions vying for those political rewards is inevitable. The tussle between the US Congress and the incumbent of the White House, explains Huntington, is a characteristic of subjective civilian control and is “fundamentally concerned with the distribution of power between executive and legislative rather than between civilian and military”. A similar impulse is currently driving the behaviour of the Congress party. It is more concerned with the BJP cornering the political fruits of the surgical strikes. It is, therefore, on the one hand exhuming its own record of previous cross-border operations and, on the other, asking the prime minister to apologize to the Armed Forces. Even if such a demand has implications for power distribution between civilians and the military, the Congress party is not concerned so long as it does not allow the BJP to run away with all the political gains.

But the problem is not confined to political parties alone. A significant section, if not the majority, of the media and the commentariat-class believes in crediting the Armed Forces for successful operations and blaming civilians for military reverses. This is actually a global phenomenon. Whether it was US’ Vietnam war or India’s border war with China, the failure was laid at the doorsteps of civilians and their “excessive interference” in military matters. Closer investigations have shown that the military leadership was as much, if not more, responsible.

A perfectly objective civilian control is not desirable because a hands-off approach by civilians is not salutary for the state’s war efforts. Moreover, the nature of the military profession itself militates against the argument of leaving military operations to the generals alone. Pointing out the lack of experience of military officers going to war, Eliot Cohen said: “There are few generals who have had the experience of being divisional or corps commanders—let alone theatre commanders or chiefs of general staffs—in more than one war.” As far as the claim—even if not tenable—of civilian interference leading to military disasters is concerned, one would do well to recall Peter Feaver’s unequivocal argument: “Civilians have the right to be wrong.”

In practice, however, the civilians generally have little room to be wrong. So they end up extracting political capital from all such instances when their judgement is proven correct. This is precisely what the BJP is doing right now. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was also accused of exploiting the Kargil victory in the 1999 Lok Sabha election. The record of the Congress party—which is now attacking the BJP for milking the army’s sacrifice for political purposes—is even more noteworthy. As Ramachandra Guha writes in his celebrated India After Gandhi, “The prime minister (Indira Gandhi), and her party, naturally sought to make political capital of what the soldiers had accomplished (in the 1971 war against Pakistan). In March 1972 fresh elections were called in thirteen states, some of which had opposition governments; others, uneasy Congress-led coalitions. In all thirteen, the Congress won comfortably.”

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