Despite shortcomings in the way the Naresh Chandra Committee functioned, its report is an opportunity for ushering in changes in higher defence management

After a year of deliberations, the Naresh Chandra Report on defence reforms has been submitted to the government and is being considered by the Cabinet Committee on Security. The renewed attention on higher defence management assumes greater urgency after what has been a tumultuous year for civil-military relations. The Naresh Chandra Committee was appointed perhaps as a response to persistent criticism that the post-Kargil defence reforms had “failed to deliver.” The report thus must be welcomed. However, while it would be unfair to prejudge this committee and its report, which is still classified, there were significant problems with the manner in which the committee functioned. Despite that, the government and India’s strategic community has a unique opportunity to debate and eventually implement much needed defence reforms. One of the most important tasks is to improve upon the weaknesses of the Naresh Chandra Committee and perhaps invoke legislative action. Paradoxically it does not appear that our political leaders or parliamentarians are up to this task.

Among the numerous controversies triggered during General V.K. Singh’s tenure as Chief of Army Staff, perhaps the worst kept secret was the lack of “defence preparedness.” Most informed analysts know about the deficiencies stemming from higher defence mismanagement, but the leak of General V.K. Singh’s confidential letter to the Prime Minister made this public. The other controversies around civil-military relations revealed the crisis of confidence and trust deficit between military officers and civilian bureaucrats in the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Union Defence Minister A.K. Anthony admitted as such when he referred to the “bitterness” between them. While the reasons for this are many — including the legacy of the controversies over the Sixth Pay Commission, at an analytical level it is a structural problem arising from at least three peculiarities in our institutional structures. First, the Ministry of Defence is not integrated with the Service Headquarters and the latter function as attached offices, working under archaic and logic-defying rules of business. In addition, there is practically no representation of the uniformed community in the Ministry of Defence. Second, the Service Chiefs enjoy tremendous powers and uniquely wear two hats — as Chief of Staff and Commander in Chief. As a result, policies can be changed relatively frequently and often on a whim or opinion. A generalist civil service culture combined with historical precedence and norms prevents bureaucrats from challenging the military on its logic. Finally, the absence of theatre commands and an ineffective Chiefs of Staff Committee has created major problems in joint-ness, defined as the ability of the three services to operate together.

Three problems

It was perhaps to address some of these issues that the Naresh Chandra Committee was appointed in June 2011. However, regardless of what the committee has recommended, there were three major problems in the manner in which it functioned. First, the setting up of the committee did not trigger a debate on higher defence management. In part this was because the committee operated in secrecy with a lack of clarity about its mandate. This was in contrast to the Kargil Review Committee which actively sought out the opinions of the larger strategic community. Second, the committee did not consist of any political leaders and, moreover, did not seek out the views of political parties. This is puzzling since the official position of the government for not appointing a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) is because “the views of political parties are being ascertained.” It is strange then that this committee did not do so. Finally, and this is a significant failing, the Naresh Chandra Committee did not conduct independent research and instead based its recommendations on the testimony offered by different agencies. In turn these agencies, for example the respective Service Headquarters, glossed over their own failings and/or did not conduct research into their claims. It is not even clear if a debate was held within the Services on the presentation that was made to the Naresh Chandra Committee. For instance, was the Commandant of the Defence Services Staff College (DSSC) and other War Colleges, the supposed repositories of strategic thinking, involved in the deposition? Even more worryingly, it does not appear as if the Committee examined previous files of, say, the Chiefs of Staff Committee to examine its efficacy. Or for that matter, previous reports on defence reforms — like the 1990 Arun Singh Committee on Defence Expenditure (this writer had filed an RTI to access this report but the MoD claimed that they could not “locate” it. If this report was put up and examined by the Naresh Chandra Committee, then the Defence Secretary is guilty of perjury and misleading the RTI court).

Despite these shortcomings however, this report presents an opportunity to debate and implement substantive defence reforms. In a recent monograph titled “A Call for Change: Higher Defence Management in India,” published by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), three of the foremost soldier-scholars of their generation, Air Marshal B.D. Jayal, General V.P. Malik and Admiral Arun Prakash, present important papers on higher defence management (another disclosure: I worked with them on it). They offer many insights that deserve attention but the most important recommendation is their appeal for political attention and interest. For a long time now many have been advocating for forceful legislation, akin to the American Goldwater-Nichols Act, to fix problems in our national security agencies. This legislation was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1986, after a vibrant public debate, to forcefully integrate the individual services and reform the Pentagon, despite objections at that time from existing bureaucracies. A similar initiative must now be considered by our political leaders. They can then improve upon the mistakes made by the Naresh Chandra Committee. Not doing so, especially in light of future strategic threats and challenges would be an act of political irresponsibility.

Ultimately, reforms will come not from conservative bureaucracies but from exceptional leadership. The expected public release and discussion of the Naresh Chandra Report offers our political leaders an opportunity to display such leadership. The jury is still out however on whether they are capable of this.

(The writer is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.)

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