A skewed relationship: Anit Mukherjee’s ‘The Absent Dialogue’ reviewed by Arjun Subramaniam

The Indian armed forces prefer the model of objective control where politicians set strategic goals, and they execute them with minimum interference, argues a military historian

November 23, 2019 04:00 pm | Updated 04:00 pm IST

Caught in a rut: The military is stuck between an all-powerful bureaucracy and a disinterested political establishment.

Caught in a rut: The military is stuck between an all-powerful bureaucracy and a disinterested political establishment.

Mature democracies debate on the political direction of war and conflict and the optimal exploitation of the military as an effective instrument of statecraft. Evolving democracies like India, that have been shaped by historical legacies that tend to marginalise the military as a participatory instrument in the democratic process, will always have a problem in either acknowledging its role in nation-building, or involving it in national security policy-making.

This is where the issue of civil-military relations enters the discourse, as there is a constant search for an equilibrium or consensus among the three principal stakeholders of national security: the political establishment, the civilian bureaucracy and the professional military.

Professor Anit Mukherjee, an ex-Indian Army officer and currently an Assistant Professor at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies, has entered uncharted territory as he offers an academically robust examination of what he terms as an ‘absent dialogue’ between the three critical silos of India’s national security architecture.

His core hypothesis is on target when he argues that India’s military effectiveness has been seriously compromised because of this dysfunctional triangular relationship. His choice of case studies — weapons procurement process, ‘jointness’ among Indian armed forces, Professional Military Education (PME), promotion policies and defence planning — is highly relevant.

Uneasy troika

The opening debate in the book between objective and subjective control of the military is an important one, and finds its way into the Indian discourse for the first time. Mukherjee suggests that the Indian military prefers the model of objective control

The Absent Dialogue
Anit Mukherjee
Oxford University Press

The Absent DialogueAnit MukherjeeOxford University Press₹1,100

wherein the politician sets strategic goals, and the military goes ahead and executes its tasks with minimum interference. He refers peripherally to the consistent inability of the political executive in the past to clearly define strategic objectives, and the reasons thereof, which opened the window for a powerful bureaucracy to step in and attempt to orchestrate the conduct of national security without the necessary expertise to do so. This is the principal reason, he argues, for the unequal, rather than absent dialogue, between a sulking military that perceives it is marginalised in society; an all-powerful bureaucracy; and a disinterested political establishment that is preoccupied with electoral struggles, rather than statecraft.

On the historical evolution of civil-military relations, he does not hesitate in taking a strong position on Jawaharlal Nehru’s role in creating a wobbly framework for national security that had to be managed by its ‘steel frame,’ the bureaucracy. His treatment of the Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi-years are instructive, as is his take on the Atal Bihari Vajpayee years, where he points at Vajpayee’s decision to restrict military operations during Kargil to the Indian side of the Line of Control as being a decisive example of the political direction of war.

If I have a bone to pick with Mukherjee it is the way he perceives the Indian Air Force (IAF). His proposition that the IAF was only involved in transport and logistics operations during World War II would sound like blasphemy to air power historians. Seven squadrons of the IAF were equipped with Hurricanes and Spitfires and contributed significantly to the Burma campaign. In fact, logistics and transport were missions that the IAF ‘did not perform.’ On a lighter vein, he has been consistently tough on the IAF in his narrative.

Mending fences

Mukherjee is also unsparing of the military for digging its heels in areas where it sees windows of opportunity to retain exclusivity. His treatment of the fault lines in PME is excellent though he pays little attention to the idea of raising the levels of scholarship within the military. Selectively including politicians in the PME process at the apex level is something that has been discussed for long at India’s National Defence College, as is the need to identify civil servants with a flair for national security and ensure that they participate in the PME process at every level. This would ensure the creation of a specialist cadre (which he does reflect on), converting the absent dialogue into a meaningful one.

Mukherjee has done a yeoman service by demonstrating ‘intellectual and academic guts’ to open a public dialogue on an issue that can now progress to a stage wherein the political establishment, the civilian bureaucracy and the military can say, “Fine, we have a problem, let us now buckle down and mend it.”

The writer is a retired Air Vice Marshal from the IAF and is currently a Visiting Professor at Ashoka University.

The Absent Dialogue; Anit Mukherjee, Oxford University Press, ₹1,100

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