A better way of selecting the top brass – 2

Politicisation will limit politicisation

Two of the more thoughtful critiques of the Modi government’s decision to jettison the principle of seniority in appointing India’s next army chief appear in the Indian Express and Business Standard today. Sushant Singh and Ajai Shukla are among the most astute commentators on the subject so it is important to read their arguments with care.*

Sushant’s main argument is that the principle of seniority in choosing the chief must be replaced by an institutionalised due process, and not arbitrary selection by the political leadership. Ajai, though primarily concerned about the politicisation of the army, also criticises the rationale provided by the Modi government in the specific case of Gen Rawat.

A reasonable person will tend to agree with Sushant and Ajai, for after all, it is a good idea to ensure that the selection process is transparently objective. However, the reasonable view in this case might be both unsatisfactory and impractical. It might be a better to allow the political executive the complete discretion to pick from among the available pool of three star officers. If the Cabinet prefers non-military criteria like partisanship, ideology or ethnicity, so be it, as the Cabinet is accountable for outcomes. The lessons of 1962 are not lost on India’s politicians. As I wrote in my first post on this topic, if we can trust the prime minister with a nuclear button, we shouldn’t worry about a much lesser risk as the selection of army chief.

Won’t this politicise the army? Well, the trajectory is unlikely to be much different from what it is now. Moreover, even as Sushant, Ajai and I are concerned about the politicisation of the armed forces at politician-general level, we are also concerned about the politicisation within the army. As Ajai brings out in his article, factional politics among the branches of the army are intense and have ended up in the Supreme Court. It is naive to believe that this intramural politics has been untouched by the country’s partisan politics. I’ve covered this objection in my earlier post.

(*As the two are both friends and sparring partners, this blog refers to them by their first names, instead of formally by their honorifics and last names.)

A better way of selecting the top brass

Nothing is lost by abandoning the principle of seniority, but the armed forces need restructuring

Yesterday, the Modi government decided to supersede two general officers and appoint Lt Gen Bipin Rawat as the next chief of army staff. In a system where seniority has risen from a criterion to the criterion, and where “lines of succession” are drawn in a manner to mirror royal succession in monarchies, the move has shocked many. After all, the last time such a thing happened was in 1981 when the Indira Gandhi government appointed Gen A S Vaidya over Gen S K Sinha’s head.

Here’s the thing: the Modi government has done well to break a norm that had so become an entitlement that it had begun damaging the incentive structures of the the military leadership. The sordid saga of Gen V K Singh five years ago revealed that the army’s leadership was spending undue energy on manipulating promotions and appointments to ensure desired lines of succession. Any organisation whose leadership is engaged in such machinations is likely to suffer loss of professionalism. By elevating seniority to a sacrosanct principle, we might well have depoliticised appointments at the level of the political leaders picking the military leadership. However, it does not mean we have depoliticised appointments within the military establishment. Because of secrecy and respect that the armed forces enjoy, the ‘politics’ within the armed forces is generally invisible to the public. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Just go back and look at the reports that emerged five years ago during the Gen V K Singh’s controversy.

If the Indian armed forces had the luxury of being a showpiece, where they did more ceremonial parades than combat, it might have been acceptable to go by seniority. But India’s armed forces have been fighting wars, proxy wars and insurgencies for ever, and the future presents ever greater risks. In such a context, it is downright absurd to argue the the senior-most officer should become the commander. Furthermore, it is downright absurd to accept that the service chiefs should be both excellent commanders and excellent staff officers: a great military leader need not necessarily be the best military manager. To roll the two roles into the same office is to get a little bit of both, and the best of neither. Jettisoning the primacy of seniority is the first step: the Modi government must use the opportunity to implement structural reforms to India’s military structure. (It’s clear what such reform should entail: see this article)

There are two important objections to non-seniority based appointments. First, that it would upset the army’s internal appointments and promotions structure. Second, that it would allow the political leadership to appoint military leaders based on partisan, ideological, religious, caste or other criteria unrelated to military merit. Let’s consider each of them in turn.

Yes, superseding officers will cause genuine heartburn, embarrassment and grievances among those adversely affected by the move. The retirement or resignation of those who have been passed over for promotion count as a loss to India’s military capital. That, however, is the price we must pay for a competitive military establishment. Much of this cost is one off, representing what behavioural economists call the “endowment effect”. Because officers expect to be promoted on the basis of seniority, they feel what is rightfully theirs has been taken away. If, from now on, officers no longer expect the seniority norm to hold, they will feel less cheated. That said, it is incumbent on the Ministry of Defence and the services headquarters to ensure that the superseded officers are treated with respect and decorum; and if they have years of service left, are re-employed in government positions commensurate with their seniority.

The second objection is more serious: what is to stop the political leadership from appointing military chiefs on dubious, non-military criteria? Well, for one, it is not as if lobbying on such grounds has not been taking place. However, the argument that the prime minister cannot be trusted to properly appoint a service chief sounds pretty unserious when the office of the prime minister has everything from the nuclear button to the validity of all legal tender in his hand. If the citizens of India vote in a government in a constitutional manner, and the ruling party constitutionally appoints the prime minister, who selects his cabinet, then that is that.

Now it is not as if the Cabinet can appoint an army chief without being bound by any constraints: they will be limited to a small number of officers to choose from, and any ideological, partisan or communal preference will be constrained by the fact that the armed forces are engaged in active duty. No Cabinet would want to lose battles or wars, or found wanting in the face of external threats. Parliament must do its job and keep the government in tether: so rather than defend the principle of seniority, concerned citizens must demand the amendment of the anti-defection law that has converted MPs into robots under the control of the party leaders.

The Modi government would do well to follow up its departure from orthodoxy with a sincere commitment to restructure the armed forces. Early in his tenure, PM Modi was reluctant to risk this reform. He should not shy away from it now. The K Subrahmanyam report was almost two decades ago; there have been a few subsequent initiatives to study the matter further. It’s well past decision time.

Tailpiece: My comments on an NDTV show on this subject in February 2012.

Update: Read the second post on this topic here.

What to make of India’s surgical strike?

India’s punitive strike across the Line of Control could set a new norm

Whatever might be the consequences, it is clear that the Indian Army’s operation across the Line of Control in retaliation to a militant attack on its Uri camp is a landmark development. Now, it is common knowledge that both the Indian and Pakistani armies cross the LoC for tactical operations, and have been doing so for a long time.

Such operations, usually, have three characteristics: limitations in the depth of incursion, the extent of damage they cause and the level at which they are officially admitted. While we do not have all the details as of now, last night’s operation appears to have been deeper and more damaging. What distinguishes it from other tactical incursions along the LoC is the level at which they have been admitted: perhaps for the first time, New Delhi has officially announced that Indian troops carried out an attack authorised by the highest political authority.

This is significant because it changes the norm to one where India will use military force across its frontiers to respond to aggression by Pakistan’s proxies. Depending on the Pakistani reaction, the act might vindicate the arguments made by some strategists that India does have space for such punitive operations, within the escalation framework. If so, an important Pakistani bluff — that nuclear weapons will shield its terrorist proxies — will be called. [Related: See this detailed analysis of the India-Pakistan conflict escalation framework]

This, however, is only the story so far. The ball now is in Pakistan’s court. If the Pakistani military establishment continues to hold the position that there was no ‘surgical strike’ at all, and just the usual cross-border firing, then New Delhi would have succeeded in setting a new norm. However, if the Pakistani army decides that it cannot let this insult go unpunished, and responds tit-for-tat — operationally and in public posturing — then it will be up to the Modi government whether it wants to up the ante. There are good reasons for either course of action.

The Pakistani army’s initial reaction is what it is, an initial reaction. It could be used to obfuscate matters to cover a retaliatory attack. Or it could be a signal of not wanting to escalate the situation. At this time, therefore, it would be prudent for the Indian government and media to hold off excessive triumphalism.

Troop movements of the curious kind

Understanding the unusual movement of two army units towards New Delhi

The byline of the report shows its seriousness. It could not have been filed without the approval of the highest levels of the Indian government. It is deeply worrisome. In January 2012, almost 60 years after the Indian republic was established, some people in the government were concerned about a military c-, well, curiosity.

The report presents a set of facts saying “(it) is too early to answer all the ‘hows, whys and the what-nexts’ of this.” It is not even clear if all the relevant facts are out in the open. Even so, at this time, what should we make of these disturbing revelations?

The two most important questions at this time are the following. First, why were the two military formations moved in an ostensibly unusual manner? Second, why did the government permit this report to be published at all, and why now?

The first question has three broad explanations. The most innocent is that this was a tragedy of errors brought about due to the atmosphere of mistrust between the army chief and civilian government officials. Triggered by the timing—General V K Singh’s petition to the Supreme Court—the civilian establishment panicked and overreacted to the unusual but unthreatening events. A crucial point is the allegation that the army headquarters did not notify the defence ministry of the movements of the two units towards New Delhi, which is the required protocol. Army commanders do not need authorisation to move troops on exercises, but need to notify the ministry when the geography of the National Capital Region is involved.

A less innocent explanation is that the movement of units was deliberate designed to unsettle the civilian establishment and nothing more. The third, and the least palatable explanation is that some people in the army thought they could pull off a political stunt, much like the dharnas, gheraos and public protests that you see in the capital on a daily basis. (No, there is no fourth explanation, this is India.)

While we do not know if any of these reflect what actually happened, the odds are heavily stacked in favour of the innocent explanation. That’s already cause for deep concern. It remains to be seen if the defence ministry will investigate the unusual troop movements further. Ideally, it ought to. At this time, however, it is unclear if this can take place without exacerbating the atmosphere of mistrust that has been created.

The second question is this: why is it that the government allowed this report to be published? On a matter as sensitive as this, it is highly likely that the Indian Express would have accepted a request not to publish such a report if the government would have made it. So why wasn’t such a request made? The honourable reason is that it is just as well that the public is kept informed of the slightest risks to our democratic setup. The political reason might be to get back at General V K Singh.

Again, we do not know the answer to this question either. What we do know is that the situation has been allowed to reach to such a point that the banana flavour is palpable. Things have gone far enough. We need a new Defence Minister. Considering what might come next under this government, it is just as well that he stays on.


Update: Framing the debate

Since this post was published earlier this morning public discourse has gravitated around two issues: on the motives and propriety of the Indian Express in publishing this story and on whether or not a military coup was attempted.

Let’s get the first out of the way—unpalatable, unsavoury and unbelievable as it may well be, the newspaper acted in the public interest by publishing it. You might quibble about the size of the headline or the sensationalisation, but unless you think bad news and potential risks ought to be hidden from public view, it is hard to justify an argument against its publishing. (Full disclosure: I occasionally write op-eds for the paper, including one last week on restructuring the armed forces)

Next, while the article alleges that the army undertook unusual movements without notifying—and notification is different from authorization, a point that many commentators have missed—the defence ministry as it was required to, it does not suggest a military coup. This is a very important distinction. Presuming that a coup could be the only motive behind the alleged mobilisation precludes us from considering other possibilities.

The report is not only about what the army did or didn’t do. It is also about what the civilian establishment did. It should be quite easy to establish whether a terror alert was sounded in New Delhi on January 16-17th, and whether the defence secretary flew back from Malaysia to meet the DGMO and send the troops back. The Indian Express cannot be fabricating these easily verifiable facts. If indeed these events occurred, then the objective reality is that of severe mistrust between the uniformed and civilian leadership in the defence ministry that had serious consequences on the ground.

What is of public interest, then, is what caused civil-military trust to break down? What mistakes did the civilian establishment make in the days and hours leading up to January 16/17? What mistakes did the army make? These questions need to be examined dispassionately in order for us to be able to attempt to restore that trust.

The defence minister dismissed the report as baseless. The prime minister uttered two brief non-committal sentences, warning us of “alarmist reports which should not be taken on its face value” and reminding us of the obligation to “do nothing to lower its dignity and respect in the public”. This is no trifling matter. It behoves on the UPA government and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to spell out—both in parliament and in public—what it intends to do to restore trust between the armed forces, the civilian establishment and the people of India.

Defence, public goods and effectiveness of provision

Illuminating a Pakistani debate

Two of Pakistan’s perspicacious commentators on military affairs have thrown in their arguments on the issue of whether defence is a public good. [See Ayesha Siddiqa’s piece in Dawn and Ejaz Haider’s response in Daily Times]

Some confusion arises because they conflate defence and the military. The use of the word adjective military as a synonym for armed forces (noun), in the American style, is already a source of confusion. But it’s not hard to inject clarity into the debate.

The simplest definition of a public good in economics is something that is non-rival and non-excludable. In other words, something is a public good when one person’s consumption does not come at the cost of another’s, and when it is exceedingly difficult to prevent any person from using or benefiting from its use. Like the perfect black body that is familiar to students of physics, perfect public goods do not exist, yet the concept helps create analytical frameworks and derive public policy prescriptions.

So national defence, an abstract noun, is a public good. It is so in Pakistan as much as it is in South Africa and Mexico. It is so because when Pakistan defends Dr Siddiqa against an invasion by Mexico, it does so without subtracting from Mr Haider’s defence; and also because when it defends either of them, it can’t exclude their editors from protection against the Mexican invasion. There is no real debate on whether defence in the abstract is a public good or not.

But because Pakistan, like most countries, employs professional armed forces (the ‘military’) to provide the defence, the debate then becomes one of how efficient and effective the armed forces are in providing the public good. It’s no different from debating just how effective is the national environmental agency in ensuring that there is fresh air in the country.

That is the problem with Dr Siddiqa’s argument that “defence is a public good so long as it is beneficial to the general public. When it is restricted to a few hundred or thousand people, then it ceases to be a public good, which must be provided for all.” She should have said that Pakistan’s armed forces are not effective in providing the public good, effectiveness being the ratio of actual beneficiaries to the targeted beneficiaries. Since this is a wonkish post, it doesn’t hurt to add that efficiency is another criteria by which the provision of public goods might be assessed. Efficiency is about bang for the buck, and is the matter for another debate.

My op-ed in Mint: The civil-military balance

India needs comprehensive military reforms, not mere salary increases for officers

In today’s op-ed in Mint, Sushant & I argue that rather than merely addressing military pay and procurement in isolation, India needs to urgently conduct a fundamental overhaul of its armed forces. Continue reading “My op-ed in Mint: The civil-military balance”

A very unGandhian land

India didn’t start projecting power yesterday

When you read an article that goes “Land of Gandhi Asserts Itself as Global Military Power” in the western press you suspect that it is a stereotype-reinforcing piece written for stereotypical western readers. And that is exactly what Anand Giridharadas’s piece in the New York Times is. (Linkthanks Ram Narayanan and Rajeev Mantri.)

Yes, India achieved its independence through the political stewardship of Gandhi. And Jawahar Lal Nehru, its first prime minister, was caught between his rhetoric, perhaps his personal convictions and cold, hard reality. That’s where the “Land of Gandhi” ends as far as the rejection of violence and military force is concerned.

Let’s ignore the various strands of opposition to British rule (hey, Mr Giridharadas forgot the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857, Aurobindo Ghosh and Subash Chandra Bose) that can lead us to conclude that Mahatma Gandhi was an aberration. A gigantic aberration, but an aberration nevertheless. Let’s focus on the India since 1947.

The Republic of India was forged together through very unGandhian ways. Some rulers were woed with promises and solemn covenants, which were subsequently broken. Other rulers were coerced using the threat of force. Hyderabad and Goa were annexed through the use of force.

Nehru himself pursued a risky strategy with China but little understood military affairs to realise the disconnect between his intention and India’s capability. But he authorised the invasion of Goa. Lal Bahadur Shastri authorised the escalation of the war Ayub Khan and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto started in Kashmir. Indira Gandhi did a number of very unGandhian things. Rajiv Gandhi sent Indian troops to combat in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, in addition to signing off on the production of the nuclear bomb. And Atal Bihari Vajpayee carried off the use of military force within the framework of nuclear deterrence. Land of Gandhi, anyone?

The Indian government has generally tried to put a gloss on its use of power by casting it in various morally appealing terms to obfuscate the underlying realpolitik. To the extent that India was ever the Land of Gandhi, it has long asserted itself through the use of force. It is just that its own growth during an era of increasing globalisation has caused it to be interested in a wider area of the globe than was the case earlier.

My essay in The Friday Times: The little revolutions in India’s military affairs

Making India’s defence policy consistent with its emergence as a significant global player.

Here’s a version of my essay that appeared in Pakistan’s The Friday Times July 11-17, 2008 | (Vol. XX, No. 21):

India’s armed forces, according to K Subrahmanyam, have “not modernised their decision-making process ever since Lord Ismay prescribed it in 1947. Command and control have not changed since the Second World War. We are now thinking about buying modern equipment when the force structure and philosophy of it go back to the desert campaign of Rommel and Southeast Asia Command of Mountbatten.”

Mr Subrahmanyam’s words highlight a much broader point—that India’s external and domestic contexts have radically changed, especially since 1991, and a wide-ranging rethink of its defence policy has become an urgent necessity. A comprehensive policy review, however, is yet to take place.

That’s because the country’s leaders—even those with an interest and expertise in defence matters—have been constrained by the diktats of coalition politics, repulsed by the vested interests of the civilian and military bureaucracies, and not least, deterred by the popular media’s enthusiasm for blowing up corruption scandals.

The central challenge is to make India’s defence policy—encompassing doctrine, equipment and manpower—consistent with its emergence as a significant global player. The process of economic liberalisation first initiated by the P V Narasimha Rao government in the early 1990s not only turned India into a trillion dollar economy by early 2008, but also made it an important stakeholder in global economic and strategic affairs. Even as this is placing new demands on the armed forces, the mix of resources available for defence has changed. Budget constraints, for instance, have eased. Manpower constraints, on the other hand, have become tighter. Mindsets and policies, though, hark back to the days when the reverse was true.
Continue reading “My essay in The Friday Times: The little revolutions in India’s military affairs”

Duh Roy

And duh Dilip?

Arundhati Roy asks rhetorically (via Dilip D’Souza who asks inquiringly):

Roy: I think speaking out against the occupation is the bravest thing that a soldier can do. I have always admired the U.S. soldiers who spoke out against the Vietnam War. In fact, in places like India, when people get randomly racist and anti-American, I always ask them: When do you last remember Indian soldiers speaking out against a war, any war, in India? [War Times]

Imagine you were an Indian soldier. Would you speak out against war when Pakistan attacks India at Kargil, Pakistan-sponsored terrorists attacks the Indian parliament, when terrorists habitually kill your fellow citizens and conduct ethnic cleansing in your own country? Or when terrorists kill your own family members? Would you speak out against war when a murderous Pakistani military dictatorship is conducting genocide in Bangladesh driving 10 million refugees into India? Or when the Sri Lankan government is brutally repressing the Tamil minority, again driving refugees into India?

If you were an Indian soldier, you would be very unlikely to speak out against a war that is imposed on you.

And let’s not forget that the Indian armed forces do not engage in public debate over policy, but professionally execute the political decision to use military force. And that’s generally a very good thing.

Preparing for global warming wars

The Indian National Interest community launches its first policy brief

Climate Change and National Security: Preparing India for New Conflict Scenarios

Policy Brief No 1 - CoverThe global debate on whether there is indeed a process of anthropogenic climate change in progress has been for the most part settled by the international scientific consensus surrounding the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. The trajectory of global warming is expected to have a major impact on human society as a whole: calling for a co-ordinated international response towards mitigation and adaptation to a warmer planet.

This policy brief analyses how climate change will affect regional security in the Indian subcontinent and implications for India’s national security. It argues that glacial melt, rising sea levels and extreme weather will exacerbate ongoing conflicts and will require India to develop military capabilities to address a range of new strategic scenarios: from supporting international co-operation, to managing a ‘hot peace’, to outright military conflict.

Get the document from the INI Policy Briefs section.