India, phantom coups, and civil-military relations

In response to the Indian Express‘ story on “curious” troop movements in Delhi and the resultant (alleged) civilian panic, I wrote a short piece for the Wall Street Journal looking at the pedigree of civil-military distrust in India:

There are plenty of other examples of alarmism from the government about military intentions, most of them demonstrating not much more than civilian neuroses … senior intelligence officials claimed to have detected at least three coup plots by generals in recent years, including one supposedly by General K. Sundarji in 1987.

“There is no credible evidence of such plots,” [Stephen P.] Cohen writes, “but insecure politicians and bureaucrats, many of whom have a stereotyped image of the military, listen to these warnings.”

I followed it up with a longer piece for Foreign Policy. In some ways, I argue, an Indian coup is the dog that didn’t bark:

Yet paradoxically, the civilians have thrust expanding domestic roles onto the soldiers. Out of 17 major Indian Army campaigns between 1947 and 1995, a dozen were within India’s borders. Between 1982 and 1989, the army was deployed to assist the civilian authorities no less than 721 times.

All this took place during a period of such growing political instability that Atul Kohli, a scholar of India at Princeton, subtitled his 1990 book “India’s Growing Crisis of Governability.”

The civilians appeared not to mind empowering generals as state governors and advisors, as long as their forces stayed in far-flung parts of the country.

Yet setting aside the V.K. Singh episode, civil-military tensions have been abating over the past decades:

 According to a book by Stephen Peter Rosen, a professor at Harvard, the military in the 1990s had little idea of how many nuclear weapons India possessed or how they might be used in wartime …

Today, military officers are increasingly plugged into such policymaking — a retired three-star rank officer now sits in the Prime Minister’s Office to deal with nuclear affairs.

I conclude:

Successive committees, going back decades, have urged India to reform the way it manages its military; recommending in particular that the headquarters of the three service arms better integrate with the Ministry of Defense to improve communication and cooperation between officer corps and civilian bureaucrats.

The irony is that the civilians have resisted making these much-needed changes for fear of unleashing a politically influential military. Their resistance has resulted in what [Anit] Mukherjee has called an “absent dialogue” between those in uniform and their political masters. It was that absence of dialogue that contributed to the errors of communication and judgment during January’s late-night crisis in Delhi.

What else to read?

An excellent place to begin would be Anit Mukherjee’s detailed paper [PDF] for the IDSA on the trials and tribulations of Indian defense reforms:

The bureaucrats without much defence expertise concentrate on the process of decision- making instead of the outcome. Moreover in the absence of political interest they often emerge as crucial power brokers. Stephen Cohen had referred to this as an alliance forged between the civil service and the politicians “for the purposes of reducing the role of the military in the decision-making process”.

[A] lack of expertise on defence affairs makes most political figures insecure about their own knowledge. As a result they are unwilling to challenge pre- existing bureaucracies. Finally, there is an unstated fear, within the bureaucratic and political class, about ‘empowering’ the military.

Finally, there’s an excellent chapter (India: The New Militaries) by Sunil Dasgupta in Coercion and governance: the declining political role of the military in Asia, a 2001 book published by Stanford. Dasgupta, against my optimism in Foreign Policy above, argues that:

[C]ivilian institutions that held the military in check are weakening. The military’s growing internal security role has given rise to concerns about the future of civilian control over the military … Today the core of the Indian state – politicians, bureaucrats, and the public generally – have become militaristic … what we see is civilian militarism. Politicians and civilian bureaucrats are willing to use force more often and earlier on, increasingly through paramilitary forces and intelligence agencies …

India faces a greater worry: the erosion of democratic civilian control over its men-at-arms, both the formal military and other armed organizations. (pp92-3)


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