Tea with the chiefs
Posted online: Sat Jul 03 2010
The recent controversy in which General Stanley McChrystal, commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, was compelled to submit his resignation to US President Barack Obama, has provoked inevitable comparisons with Truman’s sacking of the iconic hero of the Pacific war, the five-star General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, commander of the UN forces in Korea, in 1951.
In both cases, the core issue related to the supremacy of civilian authority over the military, in the specific context of subordinating military strategy to fit within the broad objectives stated by the political leadership. Both MacArthur and McChrystal were theatre commanders tasked to fight America’s overseas wars for freedom and democracy.
Both had their own ideas how to get the job done, and neither could resist going public with his dissent. The two presidents were quite resolute that the generals had to be sacked but sent them off with ample grace, not forgetting to add encomiums like “one of our greatest commanders” and “one of our nation’s finest soldiers” in their parting speeches.
All this has transpired in the world’s oldest democracy where national security issues are the subject of open, enlightened and freewheeling debate in the houses of Congress. The US president receives advice on national security issues, at first hand, from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; his current national security adviser is a retired general and, till recently, his director of national intelligence was a retired admiral.
What happens in the world’s largest democracy? Given their deep-rooted urge to emphasise the principle of civil control over the armed forces, one would expect Indian politicians to ensure that every military undertaking has a political rationale and underpinning. Oddly enough, our political establishment has flinched, not just from clearly defining national aims and objectives but also from providing guidance regarding strategic aims and end-states to the country’s armed forces leadership. Every military operation since Independence, from the 1947 Indo-Pakistan war to the 2002 general mobilisation, has been guided more by political rhetoric than strategic direction.
White Papers and open debates on national security issues are unheard of in Parliament. The sheer intensity of political activity in India makes great demands on a politician’s time. The serious and ambitious politician views matters pertaining to national security or to strategic affairs as arcane, tedious and time-consuming, best left to the bureaucracy to handle. He views armed forces personnel with a degree of detachment, as somewhat strange and peculiar creatures, and usually gives them a wide berth.
With the best of intentions, the feeling has become mutual; and over the years, a yawning chasm has developed between the armed forces leadership and the country’s political establishment. They are simply ill at ease with each other, and the civil servant serves to bridge the chasm.
Since Independence, there have been two instances where service chiefs have run seriously afoul of their political masters. In 1959 General Thimayya submitted his resignation after a confrontation with Krishna Menon, but he was persuaded by Nehru to withdraw it the following day. Four decades later, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat had a serious difference of opinion with George Fernandes, and in an unprecedented move, that shook the armed forces, the NDA government deemed it fit to dismiss Bhagwat. One wonders if the Raksha Mantri and the navy chief had been on more familiar terms with each other, and had sat down to discuss matters over a cup of tea, would this unsavoury episode not have had a less traumatic ending?
The McChrystal episode has fortuitously drawn our attention to civil-military relations in India at a critical juncture. In J&K, the army is faced with a most unenviable situation in the face of mounting public hysteria. In the Northeast and the Naxal-affected heart of India, the reluctant armed forces are steadily but surely being drawn into the dreaded maw of a domestic insurgency. The home minister has expressed fears that the Naxals may be receiving training and support from ex-servicemen (ESM). That may well be the case, but the government seems to be oblivious of the simmering resentment amongst three million ESM about their pension grievances, and the grave implications of such discontent. With the Sino-Pak axis on the ascendant, the external security situation appears equally bleak.
In a security environment such as this, one gets the uneasy feeling that communication between the politicians, bureaucrats and the armed forces leadership are not as loud and clear as they should be. In the recent Sukna Land case, and the Dantewada CRPF ambush media discussion, the layperson got the distinct impression that the defence minister and army chief were communicating via newspaper headlines.
While the integration of the armed forces HQ with the MoD may remain a distant dream, surely it is time for all national security stake-holders to sit and talk to each other.
The writer, a former Chief of the Naval Staff, is currently chairman of the National Maritime Foundation