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#3000, 9 November 2009
An Issue in Civil-Military Relations
Firdaus Ahmed
e-mail: firdyahmed@yahoo.com

Recently, the Army Chief is reported to have said that the "US has not allowed a second 9/11 to happen. Indonesia has not allowed a second Bali bombing to happen. India has allowed people to get away after the Parliament attack, the Delhi blasts and finally 26/11. It's time for all of us to say no more." In the light of weightier civil-military issues however, both analogies are inappropriate and not worth pondering. But it might be useful to consider if this is indeed a defining juncture in India’s civil-military relations.

The context is the forthcoming anniversary of 26/11, which India would hope will pass without incident. The urgency owes to the worsening situation in Pakistan. It is possible that the government is mounting pressure on Pakistan to rein in the jihadis to the extent it can. This explains the Home Minister’s earlier warning that “If Pakistan attempts to send terrorists into India again, India will not only foil those attempts but also give them a crushing response.” This ‘good cop-bad cop’ routine has helped balance out the Prime Minister’s offer of friendship to Pakistan on his trip to the Valley late last month.

The Army Chief made his statement in the presence of the Minister of State for Defence, the provocation for which seems to have been the news that the latest terror plan, a plot busted by the FBI in the US, was to target India’s prestigious National Defence College. The statement made by the present Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff Committee is in keeping with the precedent set by the previous COSC Chairman, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, of making policy-influencing pronouncements such as his recent address at a National Maritime Foundation lecture regarding India’s China policy.

But is India capable of such finesse in signalling? Answering this question in the ‘affirmative’ would mean treating the Chief’s statement as a departure in civil-military norms as an attempt to generate conflict where there is none. Whether there is a plan behind the government’s moves cannot be known with any certainty, and therefore, giving the benefit of doubt is warranted. The government is using the Chief’s broad shoulders to unmistakably convey to Pakistan that India is poised precariously on its proverbial ‘tolerance threshold’.
Nevertheless, even as an academic exercise, it is worth probing what the juncture implies. Keeping civil-military relations under periodic scrutiny, helps keep militarization in check and democracy in good health.

Firstly, the statement was made at a CII-Army seminar. This indicates the vested interests of corporate India and external arms dealers, in arming India. This is not surprising considering that the Minister of Defence has indicated that India is likely to spend US$50 billion over the middle-term. Of consequence is what this implies for policy choices. This can only be to facilitate military expenditure in pursuit of capabilities, allowing India to prevail, in case of the exercise of a military option - an inevitability since the Chief has spoken.

Secondly, one needs to question whether the Home Minister’s and Chief’s utterances have sealed India’s policy choices. High-end options, such as war, can be ruled out for reasons that have held back India even in the past - the economy, US presence, and the nuclear shadow. However, surgical strikes against any of the 5000 targets, a list of which the Air Force Western Command Chief has claimed has been drawn up, is possible. This could perhaps be supplemented with Army action across the Line of Control, so that all services can be part of the action. Would this make sense in a situation in which Pakistan currently finds itself? The expectation that India can pull off Israel-like punishing air strikes is to mistake a nuclear-armed state with Palestinian non-state actors. Since madrasas can reasonably be expected to be part of jihadi training complexes, images of bloodied madrasa children on CNN will be a political debacle best avoided.

Thirdly, in case India has not foreclosed its options, then credibility of the minister and the Chief, and in turn that of India, will suffer. With credibility at stake, the pressures for the military option would increase. This would be in addition to the right-wing pressures that would be strident, in the hope of regaining the ground lost in recent electoral battles. Therefore, even if the option is open, it has been virtually foreclosed.

This brings to the fore the most important question - can the military make pronouncements on policy choices? While it can discuss and advise on various options; making choices in democratic systems are a patently political prerogative. Military positions on issues command credibility that a government would find hard to challenge. The leaking of the MacChrystal report is an example of civil-military relations in the US. In the current circumstance, were the government to choose the saner option once again, it would reflect in bad light the opinion generated, albeit inadvertently, by the Chief’s remarks, in favour of an overtly militarized response. While not over dramatizing these developments, the lessons they may have to offer will only serve to deepen India’s democracy and military professionalism.

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