The civil-military balance (2)

Another call for a holistic review of matters military

While Commodore C Uday Bhaskar (retd) disagrees with our criticism of the service chiefs over the issue of the implementation of the Sixth Central Pay Commission report, he reinforces our call for a fundamental review of defence policy.

Weakening the sinews of its military by denigrating the chiefs is ill-advised when the nature of the security challenges is becoming more complex. The current ministerial panel brings together the most sagacious members of the UPA, and they could use this ostensible breach of discipline as an opportunity to initiate a holistic review of the Indian military and its future orientation. Setting up an Armed Forces Commission would be a highly desirable political initiative in this context. [The Hindu]

Command vs Cell

India’s new Integrated Space Cell

The good news is that the Indian government finally moved its feet on setting up a defence organisation for affairs in space. But there’s a distinct pusillanimity, lack of ambition, embarrassment or perhaps, bureaucratic consideration in what it decided to call the outfit. Instead of calling it an aerospace command that strategists have been advocating, the government has decided to call it an Integrated Space Cell (ISC). Setting up a Command would have given it a weighty profile—commands are headed by officers of the rank of Lieutenant-General or equivalent. A cell, on the other hand, can be commanded by anyone.

It is baffling that the report announcing the setting up of the ISC should mention that it has been so constituted to counter China’s plans for the militarisation of space. While China is an important consideration, it is by no means the only consideration. It may well be that the UPA government is attempting to counter criticism that it has been soft on China, but it was wholly unnecessary to exclusively cite it by name. Somebody messed up the messaging.

The unwarranted bravado in the messaging is met with an unwarranted downscaling of the new organisation. Setting up an outfit called a ‘cell’ suggests a tentative approach to a strategic issue. Unless the ISC is provided the resources, capabilities and bureaucratic heft, it is unlikely to be really effective. It remains to be seen whether the ISC is a command that is called a cell out of political correctness, or is, after all, a mere cell.

Related Link: Adityanjee’s article in Pragati on strategy and space.

Confused about India’s energy policy?

How many expert do you need to craft one definition?

The Planning Commission says: “The broad vision behind the energy policy is to reliably meet the demand for energy services of all sectors including the lifeline energy needs of vulnerable households in all parts of the country with safe and convenient energy at the least cost in technically efficient, economically viable and sustainable manner considering different fuels and forms of energy, both conventional and non-conventional as well as new and emerging energy sources and to ensure this supply at all times with a prescribed confidence level considering the shocks and disruptions that can be reasonably expected. In other words the goal of the energy policy is to provide energy security to all”. [Draft Report of the Expert Committee on Integrated Energy Policy, Planning Commission, Government of India, December 2005, p16(PDF)]

How’s that for an inclusive policy vision?

A few hundred good men

Can India’s foreign policy get anywhere with fewer than 600 men and women running the show?

Two op-eds, one by Stanley Weiss in the International Herald-Tribune (linkthanks Adityanjee) and another by Pratap Bhanu Mehta in the Indian Express (linkthanks Sameer Wagle) deal with India’s lacklustre foreign policy. Mr Weiss writes about India’s neighbouring countries, for the international audience and has nothing really for those who are aware of Lax Indica. Dr Mehta’s piece, on the other hand, presents an important—often overlooked angle—to the discourse over why India’s foreign policy is the way it is.

It’s got to do with capacity. The Indian Foreign Service has only around 600 officers in total—and they not only man the foreign ministry desks in New Delhi and over 162 missions and embassies around the world, but also handle such administrative tasks such issuing passports at regional passport offices. India’s engagement with the external world has intensified manifold over the last 20 years: yet the primary task of shaping this engagement is left to such a small number of people.

But merely increasing the cadre strength of the IFS is not the solution. The bigger point is that foreign policy is too important (and certainly too big) to be left to professional diplomats alone. In Dr Mehta’s words India lacks the ability to “draw in from a wider pool that would allow it to think strategically rather than merely diplomatically.” And it lacks this ability because of a certain hollowness in the academia and the intellectual space. Apart from a handful of ‘premier’ think tanks, there are few institutions that produce thought leadership on foreign policy issues.

While analysing India’s foreign policy, most commentators—including this one—are guilty of focussing only on intentions. It is common enough to complain that India could have done better in this case or shown more backbone in that one. That’s the flashy end of foreign policy analysis. Worrying about organisation structure, staff strength, training and collaboration with minds outside government looks mundane in comparison. Dr Mehta does well to remind us of the importance of the latter. Just why is it important? In Essence of Decision, a seminal work on explaining how governments make decisions, Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow describe three models of analysis. Their “Organisational Process” model suggests that government policies are primarly the result of bureaucratic output (and not the unmodulated action of a unitary actor).

To the extent that foreign policy is determined by the people in the foreign ministry (and their interactions with those outside it) restructuring the bureaucracy is likely to yield better results. It must, though, be accompanied by a change in the organisational culture—one that seeks, respects and uses outside expertise. This much is for the government to do. But raising think-tanks and academic departments is something that civil society is arguably better placed to accomplish. The government will remain the main actor, but there is something Indian citizens and corporates can do to make India’s foreign policy more credible. Mr Weiss, the author of the IHT article, heads an impressive organisation called Business Executives for National Security, a “a nationwide (US), non-partisan organization, is the primary channel through which senior business executives can help enhance the nation’s security.”

There’s nothing like it in India.

Sunday Levity: The Trichinopoly cigar

Celebrating the continuity of policy

A retired senior navy officer related a curious story. The stringent editorial policy of this blog required some fact-checking before it could be published. And luckily for you, it checked out. So here’s the (published version) of the story of a humble civil servant who sought a promotion.

In the early 1960s the Madras government set up a pay committee to review the pay structure and the service conditions of its officers and staff. One day a ‘top secret’ double-sealed cover landed on the desk of the chairman. It was from ‘CCA, office of the chief secretary, Fort St George, Madras’. He opened the cover to find a very humble and polite representation for upgrading the post of CCA to that of office superintendent in the chief secretary’s office because of the petitioner’s unblemished service record of 20 years. But there was still no clue as to what CCA stood for.

The chairman sent for the petitioner and asked him what these three letters meant and what exactly did he do in the chief secretary’s office. With gravity and dignity behoving a member of the chief secretary’s staff, the latter stated that in view of the 30-year embargo regarding disclosure of secret matters, he could only speak after 1975. The chairman said that in that case he should withdraw his representation and place it before the next pay committee after 1975. Appreciating that he was caught in a trap of his own making, he clarified that CCA stood for Churchill’s cigar assistant and thereby the secret unfolded…
Continue reading “Sunday Levity: The Trichinopoly cigar”

Bureaucratic remedies

Blaming the civil service for India’s failings allows the political class to escape blame

What’s holding India back? According to The Economist (link via Abhishek)

Without India’s strength, the world economy would have had far less to boast about. Sadly, this achievement is more fragile than it looks. Many things restrain India’s economy, from a government that depends on Communist support to the caste system, power cuts and rigid labour laws. But an enduring constraint is even more awkward: a state that makes a big claim on a poor country’s resources but then uses them badly.

…India’s 10m-strong civil service is the size of a small country, and its unreformed public sector is a huge barrier to two things a growing population needs. The first is a faster rate of sustainable growth: the government’s debts and its infrastructure failings set a lower-than-necessary speed-limit for the economy. The second is to spread the fruits of a growing economy to India’s poor.[The Economist]

There is no doubt that making the public administration more efficient is necessary to improve governance. In a long series of Dr Manmohan Singh’s NATO (no action talk only) measures, civil service reform was the first one. As The Economist notes, the UPA government’s only achievement in this regard is the maintenance of the hiring freeze instituted by the previous one. Yet before concluding that it is the bureaucracy that is holding India back, it is necessary to consider two things. First, the size of the problem. Changing the organisational culture of 10 million people (the size of a small country) cannot happen overnight, or even within the term of one government. It will need sustained, non-partisan political leadership. So while reforming the bureaucracy is important, given the timeline involved, India cannot wait for this to happen.

Second, good policy design can circumvent or mitigate the inefficiencies of the bureaucracy. As Mukul Asher writes in the in-depth section of this month’s Pragati the state of Gujarat has been able to achieve relatively better policy outcomes within a similar overall environment. Given good policy design—for instance, paying attention to incentives—it is possible to deliver efficient public services. Policies that empower the people—school vouchers, for example—achieve better results than those that empower public officials—like the obnoxious rural employment guarantee scheme.

Unlike fixing the bureaucracy, an exercise involving changing the behaviour of at least 10 million civil servants, resolute, responsible political leadership, an exercise that doesn’t involve more than a 1000 leaders, is likely to yield faster results. It is here that the UPA government has not merely failed—but set the clock back—despite having people like Dr Singh and P Chidambaram in the cabinet. The proximate answer to what’s holding back, therefore, are two three letter acronyms: UPA and CMP.