The military at the high table?

Photo PTI
Photo PTI

General VK Singh, now retired for over a year, is fully within his rights to share the dais with a political personality of his choice. That he is energised by a grouse against the incumbent government for not granting him an extension is plausible. Additionally, it has been reckoned by watchful security commentators that this has come to pass as yet another episode in the sorry civil war on in South Block between the brass and the bureaucrats.

The perception is that national security structures are so awry that the security prescription of the military is not taken on board. Further, military veterans have been kept from receiving their due in the form of ‘one rank one pay’ by a heartless bureaucracy. Given their perceived marginalisation, veterans are courting the opposition that in turn wants their endorsement to best the ruling party at the forthcoming polls. This could lead to politicisation of the military due to an existing beltway of intellectual and cultural traffic between the veteran community and the military.

The argument begs the question: Is the military really outside the defence policy loop? From the army’s stonewalling on the issue of AFSPA in the Northeast and in J&K and on Siachen, it would appear that not only does it have a voice, but also a veto. A defence budget of over Rs 250 thousand crores spells that the military has the outlay it could possibly bid for. This suggests that even if the military is not sitting on the table, its position has not been ignored; perhaps because it cannot be ignored. So what more can the military really want?

The military’s acquisitions suggest that all that is demanded by its doctrine is being met. All it can possibly ask for additionally is a chance at working the doctrine in practice when terrorist push comes to conventional shove. This is a policy decision that the government keeps the military out of, reserving the policy choice and decision space for itself.

This is unexceptionable since the military is only a tool and the government is the one empowered to use it or not as per its rationale. At best the military can input such a decision but it cannot arrogate the decision for itself or demand that it be as per its lights. The government fears that it may be stampeded into decisions it could come to regret, overawed by the argument and stature of the military professional. It may require arguing its case against that of the military, which in the circumstance of a conflict, would put it in a less favourable position. The upshot could well be a decision based on military logic rather than the overriding political logic.

While in theory the political coordinates of a conflict situation must supersede the military perspective, in practice this may not happen. Firstly, a government would be shy of going against professional advice. Any government would hate to have a national security decision labelled as politically motivated out of parochial ends. The usual scepticism with which political actions are greeted in the country, it would be difficult for a government to persuade the people that it was acting on the political compulsions of the situation rather than thinking of its own longevity.

Secondly, the military’s input need not always be professional. While the military is apolitical, it has corporate interests that influence its input. It does exert for having its perspective heard, sometimes using indirect pressure on decision makers by manipulating public opinion. For this purpose it has a two-star headed public information cell and is increasingly resorting to the military intelligence directorate.

General VK Singh’s revelations on the army making payments to politicians in J&K must be seen in this light. The leaked on the internal inquiry of the doings of the now defunct military intelligence outfit, the Technical Support Division, during VK Singh’s tenure allege that a bid to topple the J&K government was also on the cards during the troubles in 2010.

It is for these reasons that the military is only invited to participate in military relevant decisions, rather than figuring in the National Security Council organogram. The service chiefs though part of the strategic planning group along with the secretaries of relevant ministries, feel that, due to this clubbing with bureaucrats, their input is stifled.

They also perhaps have reservations on retired three star officers as advisers in the secretariat. This arrangement harks back to the Curzon-Kitchener controversy, with Kitchener objecting to his security input being second guessed by a serving major general in the viceroy’s council. As a result, the military is wary of ending up implementing decisions it is not party to.

There is danger in neglecting this structural deficit further. Yet a bigger problem is in the political moves of the veteran community that can be read as another indirect attempt by the uniformed fraternity to press for change. Such moves prove the point that the military is a political player that can skew decisions that are essentially political. The military at the high table is a greater danger, especially one that is a political player.

On this count, there is a case for keeping the military alongside in the room, rather than outside it or on the high table. If General VK Singh’s latest controversy is to have something positive come of it, then innovation on these lines is it.

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