In 2017, when India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar was the Foreign Secretary, he appeared before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs to depose on the 73-day-long Doklam standoff. In two separate depositions, he underlined to the committee that “the issue [on the Sino-India-Bhutan border] is more of attempting to alter the status quo on the ground... It is this aspect that transforms a transgression into a larger diplomatic and political issue shifting the matter from the domain of the Armed Forces to that of Foreign Policy”.
Armed forces as the cover
Three years later, it is now clear that China has unilaterally altered the status quo on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh over the past five months — and at multiple points. As in Mr. Jaishankar’s benchmark, it has become transformed into a larger diplomatic and political issue, but the armed forces are still fronting the issue, whether in bilateral talks or in public communication. Once the matter had moved away from the domain of the armed forces, attention should have shifted from the military to the government as the public face of the crisis. However, that has not been the case so far as the government has been keen to shield itself from public criticism by demanding unquestioning support for the armed forces. Tightly embracing the military and pushing it to the forefront of domestic public imagination is an insurance policy for political leadership when it is facing severe criticism.
Civil-military relations theorists have long warned against the participation of armed forces in domestic political roles in democracies , especially in times of a crisis. Micromanagement of the type we have witnessed during the Ladakh crisis, where the precise agenda and specific arguments of the Indian military delegation during the talks have been decided at the highest levels of government in Delhi, has drawn the armed forces into the political debate.
If stark political divisions over this issue exacerbate, it could draw the military even deeper into the political slugfest, a situation best avoided. Peter D. Feaver’s research shows that linking the prestige of the military to debatable political decisions, as the government has attempted, carries with it the potential for reduced overall public confidence in the military and increased doubts about the military’s competence, truthfulness, and other dimensions of trustworthiness.
Key men, mixed signals
The government is headed by a Prime Minister who is a master at public communication and not short of words on any issue. He regularly speaks directly to the people, either through his own radio show, by updates on social media platforms, through his public speeches broadcast on television channels, or his addresses to the nation. He has been, however, conspicuous either by his silence on the border crisis or by his laboured efforts to avoid mentioning China by name.
The one time he chose to speak in detail on the issue was during the all-party meeting, on June 19, called by the government to discuss the violence on the India-China border, where he said: “ Na koi wahan hamari seema mein ghus aaya hai aur nahi koi ghusa hua hai, na hi hamari koi post kisi dusre ke kabze mein hain ( No one has intruded and nor is anyone intruding, nor has any post been captured by someone)”. His rather convoluted formulation, that needed an elaborate official clarification , handed the Chinese officials an argument they have gleefully used to embarrass the Indian interlocutors in all bilateral negotiations thereafter.
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From his cabinet, the External Affairs Minister has not spoken at any great length about the border crisis, although he has held multiple events related to the launch of his new book, The India Way: Strategies for an Uncertain World . Only the Defence Minister, who was the first to confirm the border crisis in a news television interview, delivered a carefully prepared statement in Parliament on September 15. The statement was factually correct but did not leave anyone better informed at the end of it. He took no questions from Members of Parliament, denying the Indian citizen an opportunity to have authoritative information and form her own view about the government’s decision-making. Compare this to the reality in the British Parliament, where some of the toughest questions on the most sensitive issues are thrown at the Prime Minister, who has to answer them as a measure of his accountability to the people.
The presiding officer of the Rajya Sabha asked the Defence Minister to brief the leaders of Opposition separately but there has been no such briefing even two weeks later, and Parliament has been prorogued. The country still does not know whether the Cabinet Committee on Security, which is the highest authority in the country on matters of national security, has met and discussed the grave border crisis in the past five months. In contrast, the previous National Democratic Alliance government had conducted official daily briefings during the 1999 Kargil War and senior Ministers were available to answer the media’s questions.
The government’s argument for not taking any questions in Parliament was the surmise that these were sensitive operational issues which cannot be discussed in public. It holds little credence going by the operational details shared by top armed forces officials in unofficial media briefings. It means that there are enough relevant aspects that can be made public without compromising military operations or national security.
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A more viable argument in support of the government’s stance is that every government needs a free hand during negotiations and making information public ties its hand for any give and take during parleys. For e.g., the government may have hypothetically wanted to ignore the territory China has ingressed in Ladakh after May, if it could have a firm commitment from Beijing on delineating the international boundary. That would not have been possible had the Prime Minister told the Indian public on June 19 that China now denies India access to more than 1,000 square kilometres of territory in Ladakh — he would be under pressure to publicly ask the military to throw the Chinese out. By stating that no Chinese soldier was in Indian territory, he retained the flexibility to clinch such a hypothetical deal.
On public opinion
However, democratic governments can use public opinion to strengthen their hand during negotiations and to avoid making concessions to the other party. Pakistani leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto did it during the 1972 Simla negotiations after Pakistan’s loss in the 1971 Bangladesh war.
Nearer home, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee nudged the Opposition parties to hold public protests against plans to send Indian troops to Iraq in 2003, an idea his deputy, L.K. Advani had agreed to in Washington DC The excuse of adverse public opinion allowed Vajpayee to pull back from Advani’s assurance to the Americans.
Wanted, official information
The lack of official information about the crisis has been damaging in other ways too. Not only are people uninformed; they are also misinformed by the gung-ho jingoistic, hyper-nationalist commentators and journalists who have hyped up the Indian military and diplomatic capabilities. Their desire to believe the most exaggerated version of events showing India in the greatest light, has put more pressure on this muscular government which cannot afford to be seen as weak. The gravest warning of keeping the people in the dark comes from neighbouring Pakistan — on the day its armed forces surrendered to India in Dhaka on December 1971, the Pakistani media was running reports of a glorious military win. A more honest dissemination of information prevents such situations from developing, which can have damaging consequences for the country going forward.
India is facing a grave crisis on its borders which shows no sign of ending. As an issue in the middle of a raging novel coronavirus pandemic and a plummeting economy, it needs a ‘whole-of-government’ approach directly under the visible leadership of the Prime Minister. But the government seems shy of taking ownership of the crisis, instead placing the armed forces as the public face of the challenge. Having the uniform as a shield to avoid democratic accountability may be politically profitable for the government but it carries the risk of aggravating the crisis and hurting India.
Sushant Singh is a journalist and a former Indian Army officer