Is Chief of Defence Staff as Supremo safe for Democracy?
Strategic discourse in India has it that the reason for a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS)-with-teeth is to have an efficacious military instrument against threats, such as the extant Two Front threat. The reality however is that this consideration is not necessarily what drives the military’s civilian superiors in their ongoing touching up of the higher defence organization (HDO). They could well be more interested in coup proofing the HDO.
The Narendra Modi regime has been more willing to chance an empowered CDS – one with command authority over significant and sizable military tools. It can afford this since it already has in place coup proofing measures. To the regime, the CDS is no longer the Man on Horseback. Such fears had kept the appointment at bay in the past decades.
Coup proofing – a primer
A coup could be ‘hard’ or ‘soft’. The former is military conduct of or participation in the forced displacement of a civilian government. On the other hand, a ‘soft’ coup is a more advanced form of the not unusual ‘shirking’ that militaries take recourse to in order to get their way or avoid disagreeable pressures. This includes disobedience and insubordination.
The Modi regime has taken care of ‘hard’ coup proofing by holding the military to the professional till in aggravating the national security predicament by needling China on the borders. Even as it does so, it has taken care to keep its escape hatch open, by also keeping China appeased, and counter-intuitively soon the military talks table. It has taken care not to settle matters with Pakistan, though the time was ripe, till instability in Pakistan robbed India of another credible interlocutor. This way, a military engaged in its primary task alongside and in the midst of transformative change would unlikely pose a threat, even if it could.
As for ‘soft’ coup, it has tried to throw in a cultural change as part of its transformation agenda. The CDS in a recent talk alluded to the Panch Pran as guiding light to take India, and its military, to Amrit Kaal by 2047. Decolonisation of the mind is the proverbial old idea being removed prior to the new one being inserted based on original, authentic and unpolluted Indian (read Brahminical?) ideals of yore. The former is especially difficult for the military mind, while the latter might first see the nation being conditioned – another iffy proposition.
This discussion shows coup proofing figures in the consideration, even if operational effectiveness through Integrated Theatre Commands (ITC) is the more visible topic in the HDO discussion. Whereas for the regime the problem has seemingly been rendered academic, for other political parties the CDS and its baggage of coup is a legacy question suddenly acquiring traction. Since a CDS-with-teeth – with some kind of command relationship with ITCs – may be a reality soon, prudence requires a look at whether democracy stands any more threatened than it already is under the Modi regime.
The past decades
Though Independent India started off with a CDS-like appointment in a Commander-in-Chief, it soon jettisoned it in favour of Chiefs of Staff for respective Service. Not only was the intent to empower the junior two Services by letting them come abreast of the land forces, but to cut the Army Chief to size. The fledgling democracy required the military to be politically neutered, a sensible precaution in light of events in other post colonial states, particularly the one next door.
The three Services growing up in silos led to suboptimal prosecution of war. The 1947 War, confined to Jammu and Kashmir, remained land-centric, with use of air power only for logistics. Even in the 1962 War, offensive air power remained untested. In 1965, the sister Services of the Army bemoaned being left out of war planning and, as result, were surprised by its outbreak. In the Sri Lanka episode, though a joint headquarters was anchored on the Southern Command headquarters, protagonist memoirs have it that it grew dysfunctional soon. The start of the Kargil conflict witnessed an unseemly face-off between the Army and Air Chiefs, the latter unwilling to spark off a war without political level say so.
India dithered on the CDS-equivalent appointment for about half a century. The debate started after its showing in the 1971 War. Inter-Services cooperative war effort served as argument for moulding structures and processes. What held India up was not so much the strategic sense behind the idea as much as fear that a military unduly empowered could prove a threat to Indian democracy, since by then democracies were falling like nine-pins across the under-developed world to military interventions – mostly super-power backed. The division of the armed forces into three Services was useful to prevent generalissimo pretensions. The security situation did not warrant an Indian Hindenburg-Ludendorff.
Indian democracy was a light house of sorts. This was not fortuitous. Enlightened coup proofing by political minders was in evidence, much derided by military men as a downgrading of the military. Early in the aftermath of the 1971 War, Jagjivan Ram had to assure parliament that Sam Bahadur – elevated to field marshal rank only a couple of months prior - had been spoken to for when in retirement, he, in his inimitable style, responded to a scribe’s hypothetical question. The journalist lost no time in transmitting the wisecrack to jittery politicians. The seemingly exaggerated issue of a military coup was very much alive in consciousness of politicians, testified to by the appointment soon thereafter - through manipulation of the chain of seniority - of an ethnic kin, General ‘Tappy’ Raina, by Indira Gandhi.
Ever since peer armies went in for amalgamation of the armed forces – the United States being the principal one in the late eighties – the push in strategic circles picked up for a tightening of the national security and military domain. Both could do with an organizational upgrade, particularly since the internal security scenario worsened, creeping nuclearisation took place and regional and global dynamics intersected on the periphery of the subcontinent.
After a false start in the early nineties, India proceeded by decade-end to acquire a fledgling National Security Council system, presided over by a National Security Adviser. A similar case for firming up the HDO was conceded in principle in wake of the Kargil conflict, but only worked towards with bureaucratic efficiency typical of Indian babudom. Though the military imagined the bureaucracy relishing being Acting CDS, this owed more to political reservations. There was no political consensus.
The wasted years
The Gandhi family held sway over the government for a decade at a time when the logical next steps could be taken. The presiding matriarch reportedly held the proverbial ‘remote’. Appointing a fellow devout, AK Antony, as defence minister, to ensure against a Bofors-scandal redux, Sonia Gandhi wished to prevent buffeting of the economic and social transformation India was attempting through trickle-down from liberalization (Sonia Gandhi headed the National Advisory Council to justify her holding the remote).
Expectedly, the Right Wing opposition kept chafing at the bit. They capitalized on revitalizing defence as a subject area. Within the Services was the understandable inter-Service pitch for a bigger slice of a better performing economy. Seeing peer militaries internalize the Revolution in Military Affairs – evident from the early gains from the so-called Global War on Terror – the military could not be faulted. It felt thwarted from getting back at Pakistan for its proxy war in Kashmir; successive crises fizzling out before turning into conflicts wherein it could show its mettle. The Right Wing tapped into its disquiet.
An easing of tensions with Pakistan in the period left the military without a compelling case. The military alighted on a China threat, induced by the normal operation of a security dilemma on China’s breaking out. After 26/11, this duly metamorphosed into threat of a Two Front War. India’s lack of response provided a handle for the military and the Right Wing the ammunition it needed to paralyse the Manmohan Singh government, already forced on the back-foot by a slew of corruption allegations.
Fearing the Right Wing would outflank it, the Singh government did what it could under the circumstance – fall in line with the military’s argument on a Two Front threat. Aware that its strategic restraint could be misrepresented as pusillanimity, it had allowed the military doctrinal innovation. Though well practiced for a half a decade since the aborted Operation Parakram, the resulting Cold Start doctrine was not applied to 26/11. As answer to the fear of escalation – including to the nuclear level - the idea of surgical strikes was mooted. In face of a global economic downturn – the beginnings of which were apparent by then to the economist in Manmohan Singh – it was a decidedly sage decision not being provoked into war.
In compensation, the government upped defence spending, went in for high profile acquisitions (that included a deal for the Rafale), reluctantly adopted the Two Front threat and went slow on mending Kashmir. It was tough love for Pakistan. Laissez faire for military allowed it to mainstream the Two Front threat perception. Resultantly, competitive intrusions on the China front began towards the end of the Singh tenure. In retrospect, the initial confrontations in Ladakh can be seen as precursors to Galwan.
The Right Wing did not arrive at this happy conjuncture - where it could ride the national security horse to a win in national elections - by happenstance. It had over the past decade assiduously worked to create neurosis in society. Alongside, it built up a Champion in Narendra Modi. His image after the Gujarat Pogrom proved useful. He serenaded military veterans - led by the Army Chief of Date-of-Birth fame - with promises of a national war memorial and museum, One Rank One Pension and fixing Pakistan and Kashmir.
Modi - ably backed by intelligence czar Ajit Doval - thus stepped into a national security environment tailor made for grandstanding. All the pieces were in place for smooth appropriation. As with other government schemes, Modi’s mug-shot was stamped on the fresh packaging. Going further, such as with the Rafale deal, Modi obliged those who’d put their money on him. The Right Wing came into its own, taking down institutions and sectors from education to judicial.
In retrospect, Sonia Gandhi’s fears of a Right Wing take-over - forged in dinner conversations in the Gandhi home during her informal political tutelage by two prime ministers - were borne out. India was not witness to a mere change of government. With the questionable Pulwama-Balakot episode being ridden to electoral victory it seems increasingly likely that India was instead subject to what can arguably be categorized as a Right Wing coup - even if electorally sustainable.
The scene today
Those who opened the doors from within - Jaichand and Mir Jafar-like – were Facilitators. The Facilitators busy themselves with matters as HDO. Their flagship enterprise – CDS - is soon to be capped by ITC, allowing for final touches to the CDS post. Unknown as yet is who the command authority over theatre commanders will rest with.
The CDS of today is toothless. There is more thinking in the open domain on the configuration of theatres rather than on the authority that will oversee these. As a retired general who once dealt with the issue pointed out at a talk - under Chatham rules - in the national capital late last month, that is the difficult part. To him, the operationalising the ITCs would be to put the cart before the horse, since logically who will control them, how and with what needs to be decided first.
Logically, the CDS must oversee ITC in his capacity as Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee. A second option has a civilian defence minister as war lord, with the CDS as adviser. The second option can safely be ruled out in the Indian context of rank ignoramus often tenanting the defence ministry (as now). The CDS could thus get a fresh mandate. He would have to be supported by a spruced up Headquarters Integrated Defence Staff. This should precede ITC formation.
Coup proofing revisited
A military that suppresses information - that ought to be in the ken of a knowledgeable voter for an informed choice - stands suborned. Such military action undercuts democracy, a political act. For its silence, professional accountability has been dispensed with by its political overseers – further tying the military to the regime with strings of complicity. Cases to point are Balakot, Ladakh and even the scenario-building that legitimized evacuation of Article 370 in Kashmir. The military ends up a handmaiden of the regime, a camel within the tent.
For cast-iron coup proofing, further measures are in place. Deep selection has rendered asunder any cohesion the military could bring to a coup. The regime resurrected the career of a retiree, reinforcing the unseemly lobbying in the retired fraternity for its attention. Serving officers have evidently learnt not to speak up, the catchment for CDS being opened to all at three-star flag rank. The infliction of the Agnipath scheme compels the inference that standing up for professional convictions is now passé.
Agnipath deflates the military as a cohesive force. Weighed down by Agniveers who have come of age in the Modi era, the military would be hard put to mount a military operation, leave alone a coup. Besides, the paramilitary – that has curiously been spared the Agnipath scheme – is well poised, with experience in operations in Maoist zones and in Kashmir, to pose a formidable obstacle to any would-be coup maker.
Even a CDS-with-teeth poses little danger. Deep selection enables a Right thinking choice, testifying to the onset of subjective civilian control over the military in Indian civil-military relations. The CDS would thus be powerful, but only in his own domain, while being reduced to a camp follower – not unlike Hermann Goring.
Besides, theatrisation would render ITCs powerful and with the wherewithal. If any theatre commander were to get such ideas, he would be balanced out by the other theatre commander. The four four-star officers at headquarters would not only cancel each other out, but also would not have the resources. This is one lesson that the Right Wing learnt from the incident-that-wasn’t when the defence ministry was spooked with the Para Brigade’s surreptitious move from Agra to outskirts of Delhi without the civilian side getting to know. (Also, take a look at the house of the CDS in Lutyen’s Delhi when compared to the done-up residences of the three Chiefs!)
What of Democracy?
Coups are not necessarily military executed; Hitler’s in Weimar Germany and, nearer our times, the Trump insurrection are cases to point. At the latter juncture, the United States’ military’s backroom consideration would legitimately have been a counter-coup to save democracy.
A military cognizant of Constitutional duties to prevent a coup – from any direction - serves as deterrent. Neutering a military from misplaced coup concerns can amount to disabling its ability for a counter coup. This renders democracy vulnerable to passing authoritarians and predatory ideologies. Taken beyond a point, coup proofing compels a questioning of motives.
For the Modi regime, going ahead with a CDS did not raise any coup relevant issues, since the CDS has no command authority. It was a politically useful move. However, coup proofing considerations must attend next steps. The political spectrum must be taken onboard prior. Since ITCs are on the cards, an empowered CDS or otherwise is a topic that must figure in strategic thinking.
Coup considerations may be academic – after all, the regime intends to stay on till Amrit Kaal. That is not so with other political parties, now even more tuned in to the changes in the military’s organizational culture. Subjective civilian control leads to an internalisation of ‘nationalist’ dogma by the military. This makes a soft coup more likely in the increasingly improbable event of alternation in power placing a liberal government in saddle.
As for the military, demonstrating an apolitical character in this debate implies putting the brakes on hasty moves in HDO. It must recap that as a defender of the Constitution, it must have the political acumen and preserve the capacity to deter and prevent any illegitimate - even if legal – final touches to the Constitution that Hindutva may have in store.