The absent dialogue


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CIVIL-MILITARY relations, in most democracies, are a matter of some debate. In India this conversation is usually marked by a self-congratulatory tone on successfully maintaining civilian control. Admittedly, this issue should not be taken lightly given that most post-colonial states have a problem with civilian control over their military. India’s ‘other’, Pakistan, provides an instructive case of the fate of nations with recalcitrant militaries. While civilian control may have been of some concern, justified or not, in the immediate years after independence, the fear of a military coup in contemporary India does an injustice to its strong democratic institutions, free press, civil society, responsible political parties and its professional military, which have all deeply internalized the idea of civilian control.

However, there is a flip side to civil-military relations in India. Simply put, the structure and nature of civil-military relations have had an adverse impact on the effectiveness of the Indian military. And while effectiveness may not be of particular concern as long as most decision-makers presume that the military can adequately defend India’s borders and quell its internal insurgencies, it has several important, though largely unappreciated, consequences.

Some of the stories that came after the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai – of policemen armed with antiquated rifles and little firing practice, intelligence coordination failures, commandos waiting on the tarmac for an airlift, alleged lack of ‘defence preparedness’, among others – are emblematic of this problem. It also has deeper historical resonance – with the army outgunned in Sri Lanka in the late ’80s, Kashmiri militants possessing superior radio-sets vis-à-vis the Indian Army, whispers of Israeli technicians providing critical support to the air force during the Kargil war and armoured units being ‘blind’ at night during Operation Parakram in 2001-02. In fact, the Kargil Review Committee, the Group of Ministers report and numerous standing committees on defence allude to the lack of defence preparedness and its corollary, military effectiveness, both directly and indirectly.

The capability of the armed forces also has consequences for the type of power India aspires to be. Despite India’s rise, many question its ability to play a stabilizing role in the region and beyond. To do so, the Indian military might be required to back up its diplomacy. For instance, it could stabilize the pirate-infested waters off Somalia or conduct peace enforcement missions either under a UN mandate or to protect its own national interests. Indeed, as India faces numerous challenges on its periphery, military effectiveness should not be dismissed as a militaristic notion, as certain sections of the Indian intelligentsia are wont to do, but as a necessary national concern.


I begin my essay by explaining the main characteristics of Indian civil-military relations and describe how these characteristics, in turn, affect the military’s effectiveness. Then, I explain why the term ‘absent dialogue’ best explains the current nature of civil-military relations. Next while analyzing some of the recent changes and reforms in higher organizations of defence, I argue that they have largely been subverted in practice.

I conclude with two major recommendations. This essay is not an exercise in witch-hunting. There are no villains here, and caricatures of corrupt and uncaring politicians, devious and power-hungry bureaucrats and vain, ignorant or hawkish senior military officers miss the point, but only just (for, like most caricatures, there is some truth in these descriptions). Instead, the main argument is that despite the presence of patriotic, hard-working and well-meaning officials, the structure, interaction and nature of institutions are largely responsible for weaknesses within the Indian military.


There are three main characteristics of Indian civil-military relations. First, there are strong administrative, procedural and bureaucratic controls over the armed forces. This is not necessarily unique or inherently problematic. A massive civilian bureaucracy controls the US military, for instance. The difference, in India, is a lack of bureaucratic expertise in defence affairs, a problem inherited from the colonial era, with its emphasis on a generalist cadre instead of a specialist one. This has had an impact on the functioning of most public institutions in India. Acknowledging this, and in an effort to obviate it, the government has tried to post civilian bureaucrats in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) for longer tenures than usual. However, in the absence of in-depth knowledge and hindered by information asymmetries, most bureaucrats, predictably, have focused on the process of decision-making instead of the outcome. Further, lacking the expertise to challenge the military on its logic makes it difficult to arbitrate between competing parochial interests.

For instance, the Indian Air Force opposed the creation of the Army Aviation wing, and still opposes the induction of attack helicopters in that wing, allegedly on turf considerations.1 In another case, the issue of close air support (CAS) has turned into political football and has historically divided army and air force planners. Some form of civilian intervention in this dispute which – while examining political objectives, threat levels, mission plans and anticipated battle scenarios – would guide military planners could potentially obviate some of the inter-services acrimony. However, civilians not only lack the expertise but, more crucially, are unwilling to assume the responsibility that comes with making possibly controversial decisions. This characteristic, among other problems, leads to imperfect integration.


The second characteristic of civil-military relations is an exclusion of the military from crucial decision-making forums, thus denying it a role in the policy-making process. While the armed forces are consulted before decisions are made on the use of force, the armed forces have usually been excluded on crucial inter-agency deliberations. Nothing exemplifies this more than a study of the defunct Defence Minister’s Committee (DMC), the formal institution that was supposed to involve the service chiefs in decision-making.

Instead of allowing an exchange between political leaders and military officers, the DMC, in practice, has been replaced by inconsistent, agenda-less and episodically convened ‘morning meetings’. Even on thematic issues like strategic planning and threat assessments, international security issues, development of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems and even, to a certain extent, weapons procurement, the armed forces are either excluded or barely consulted. Admittedly, in recent times, there have been a number of reforms (and these will be discussed later) but, for the most part, this is a unique feature of Indian civil-military relations.

Finally, perhaps to facilitate the acceptability to the military of the previous two factors, considerable autonomy has been granted to the military concerning its own affairs. While the concept of strong bureaucratic control with military autonomy may appear paradoxical, the entire process plays out as a complicated game of negotiations and bargaining, threats and contestation in which personalities, obviously, make a difference. For the most part, though, the military is allowed to do much of what it wants in what it considers its own sphere of activity: training and education, threat assessments, force structure, doctrine, innovations, appointments (up to a certain rank) and miscellaneous welfare activities. This arrangement, in turn, is a legacy of the disastrous 1962 India-China war, which was blamed on ‘political interference’ in military matters.

This pattern was further cemented in 1971 when, according to most accounts, General Sam Manekshaw successfully, and rightly, ‘stood up’ to his political masters and was able to plan and execute the victorious campaign in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. Hence Indian civilian policy-makers, both political and bureaucratic, rarely question the logic, assumptions and execution of military plans.


These three characteristics – bureaucratic controls without expertise, the exclusion of the armed forces from policy-making bodies, and an autonomous military – combine to have a deleterious effect on the military’s effectiveness. In addition to problems of integration, as discussed earlier, there are problems in three other areas – strategic assessments, weapons procurement and human resources development. For the sake of brevity, I discuss only one case study in each of these areas.

A strategic assessment that examines the India-Pakistan military dynamics would, obviously, have to deal with the dilemma of waging a limited war under a nuclear umbrella. The army’s current plan – the ‘Cold Start’ doctrine – is a non-starter for a number of political, diplomatic, logistical and tactical reasons. More importantly it risks crossing the nuclear threshold as Pakistani red-lines, expectedly, could include any Indian forces crossing the international borders. Instead, one answer to this dilemma could involve a larger investment in the Indian Air Force that would, ideally, give it the capability to not only comprehensively negate the Pakistani Air Force but also target their military formations on the ground. This would, then, give India the option of striking the Pakistani military directly for its alleged support for terrorist groups operating in India.

Logically, military plans along these lines make more sense than the continued reliance on Cold Start-type operations. However, this would mean a diversion of expenditure from other services to the air force and thus may risk becoming mired in parochial turf battles unless civilians decisively intervened. This sort of civilian intervention does not occur under the current nature of civil-military relations.


Similarly, the weapons procurement process, influenced deeply by civil-military relations, has hampered the effectiveness of the military. Others have commented on the recurrent lapsing of the capital outlay funds from the defence budget, the lack of responsiveness of public sector defence companies, and the considerable time delays in procuring weapons and equipment. In one of the most egregious cases, the Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT) for the air force took 22 years to procure and induct. In the meantime, there have been more than 200 plane crashes in the air force (to be sure, not all of them due to pilot error). It stands to logic that plane crashes that occurred due to pilot error and which were flown by trainee officers could perhaps have been obviated by a quicker induction of these AJTs. In some countries, this neglect would be worthy of a class action law suit.


Finally, the current pattern of civil-military relations perpetuates rigid and archaic manpower policies. For instance, there is very little that civilians can do to encourage and promote ‘reformist’ military officers, arguably one of the prerequisites for successful military innovation. Moreover, some of the current manpower policies encourage sectional interests over talent. For instance the ‘pro-rata’ system in the army, under which vacancies in senior ranks are based and allocated on percentage representation of arms and services, akin to a quota policy, promotes regimental and group loyalty while, simultaneously, disallowing many of the more suitable officers from attaining senior ranks.

Civilians need to step in and devise policies that retain the best talent, encourage innovation, intellectual development and prevent parochial interests. Admittedly, this is easier said than done, especially since this will have to guard against the politicization of military officers.

It is not as if India’s problems are unique. Other democracies also face problems with delegation, information asymmetry and attaining, if possible, the correct civil-military ‘balance’. While examining four successful wartime commanders, Eliot Cohen argues for the idea of an ‘unequal dialogue’ between political and military leaders, ‘a dialogue, in that both sides expressed their views bluntly, indeed, sometimes offensively, and not once but repeatedly – and unequal, in that the final authority of the civilian leader was unambiguous and unquestioned.’2 What is unique in India, I argue, is the absence of a conversation between politicians, bureaucrats and military officers before a crisis. Hence, in recent times, Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh rarely met with their chief military planners before the Kargil, Parakram and 26/11 Mumbai crises. Indeed, there are deep sociological, organizational and institutional divides between the political, bureaucratic and military classes in India.

Moreover, other democracies after attaining civilian control have usually undertaken reforms to enhance the effectiveness of their military.3 This step, as yet, has happened only imperfectly in India. In sum, the structure of civil-military relations loosely translates into a system where, according to K. Subrahmanyam, ‘politicians enjoy power without any responsibility, bureaucrats wield power without any accountability, and the military assumes responsibility without any direction.’4 This, then, lies at the heart of the absent dialogue.


This perspective would be incomplete without acknowledging certain positive developments in recent years. To begin with, the implementation of some of the recommendations of the Kargil Review Committee report and the Group of Ministers report has been a definite improvement. The creation of the Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) and National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS), the devolution of financial powers to the armed forces, attempts to bring transparency to the arms procurement process, improved collaboration between the services and public sector defence companies and a greater emphasis on inter-agency coordination have all made a positive change.

Paradoxically, as proved by the intelligence coordination failure that led to the 26/11 attacks – rightfully characterized by Admiral Sureesh Mehta as a ‘systemic failure’ – many problems still remain. Many of these reforms have in practice actually been subverted. Hence, the integration of service headquarters with the Ministry of Defence, a key recommendation, was, in an act of bureaucratic sophistry, made by simply changing its nomenclature. The Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) itself, missing the masthead of the Chief of Integrated Defence Staff (CIDS), is routinely ignored and bypassed by the service headquarters and other ministries leading many to question its role and function. Similarly, the NSCS too has drawn criticism for its recruiting policies, function and modus operandi.


The failure of some of the institutional reforms is, in turn, due to two factors – bureaucratic politics and political apathy. The former is easily understood. Bureaucracies oppose policies that result in a loss of power, prestige or resources. Hence, officials within the armed forces and in different ministries (primarily, Home, Defence and External Affairs) have frequently subverted reforms. Political apathy, on the other hand, demands a more nuanced explanation. In the first place, very few politicians are interested in defence affairs and fewer still have any expertise in it. After all, the defence minister over the last few years, A.K. Anthony, was placed there not for any strategic or military acumen or even interest but because of his incorruptible image. More importantly, politicians are unwilling to push through controversial reforms – especially those that might involve taking on parochial bureaucratic interests – to avoid taking on any responsibility. Pushing these reforms increases the risk of electoral accountability, in case of any setbacks. Not doing so, on the other hand, does not impose any costs on the politician as mistakes can be shifted onto others.


While there are many issues that need to be addressed in the nature and form of civil-military relations, I conclude with two major recommendations. The first concerns the recommendation of the standing committee on defence which, while examining the entire reform process, suggested the establishment of a ‘high powered expert committee to reorganise, reform and restructure the armed forces.’ Such an exercise should be institutionalized and undertaken every seven years or so to allow for course corrections and to deal with unintended consequences. Necessarily, it will have to consider reforms within civilian bureaucracies to deal with issues like expertise, integration, capacity and capability. Ideally, such a committee should also include members unattached to any of the concerned institutions. Finally, it should be staffed, especially at the junior level, by a younger generation of experts who can then take their experience into the future.

The second recommendation would be to free the past and thereby help engineer an attitudinal shift towards national security. In other words, begin by allowing scholars access to archival material in the Ministries of Defence, Home, External Affairs and related institutions. It should be obvious, for example, that Nehru’s papers, and the papers of all our prime ministers and other public officials, do not belong to a family or a political party but to the people of India. As the required declassification has not been done, it is no surprise that there is not a single academic or historical work on the post-independence military (or the police, paramilitary, intelligence and diplomacy for that matter). This has resulted not only in a disconnect between academia and policy-making but also to a ‘lack of history’ within the latter.5 The next step would be to invigorate the teaching of security studies in universities so as to inform and educate the next generation. Resources should also be taken to create career streams to attract talent. Only then can India engage in a well-informed dialogue on civil-military relations, national security, political aspirations and military effectiveness.

In order to do so, India’s political leaders will have to display sagacity and maturity. These measures can only succeed with political will, determination and leadership. If India continues to have weak institutions handling national security it cannot be attributed to bureaucrats and military officers alone. Ultimately, it is a political responsibility and a political choice made by the elected representatives of the Indian people. And in electing them the people of India take full responsibility for their own national security. It might not make a pretty picture to say that we are weak because we choose to be weak, but sometimes it is necessary to look in the mirror.



1. Gen Vijay Oberoi (ed.), Indian Army Aviation 2025, Knowledge World Publishers, New Delhi, 2007.

2. Eliot Cohen, Supreme Command: Soldiers, Statesmen and Leadership in Wartime, Free Press, New York, 2002, p. 209.

3. For instance, reforms were carried out in Australia, US and the UK through the Tange report, Goldwater-Nichols Act and under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher respectively.

4. Interview, New Delhi, March 2008.

5. Anit Mukherjee, ‘Relearning Lost Lessons: The Indian Army in Counterinsurgency’, in Sumit Ganguly, Andrew Scobell and Joseph Liow (eds.), Handbook of Asian Security Studies, Routledge, London, forthcoming.