Interviews | Security | South Asia

Anit Mukherjee on India’s Chief of Defense Staff and Civil-Military Relations

Will India’s new chief of defense staff make a difference?

Ankit Panda
Anit Mukherjee on India’s Chief of Defense Staff and Civil-Military Relations
Credit: Indian Ministry of Defense

In August 2019, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that the country would set up a new chief of defense staff, a non-command professional service chief at the apex of the Indian Armed Forces. The Diplomat’s senior editor, Ankit Panda, spoke to Anit Mukherjee, an assistant professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and author of the new book on civil-military relations in India The Absent Dialogue: Politicians, Bureaucrats, and the Military in India, on the creation of the new position and other issues pertaining to the Indian military.

The Diplomat: What do you make of how the Indian government has chosen to implement the long-anticipated position of chief of defense staff (CDS)? What are the strengths and shortcomings?

Anit Mukherjee: I think that the Indian government has finally got around to appointing a CDS is a laudable development and full credit should be given to the political leadership. As we well know, the CDS issue has been hanging fire since the late 1950s and I am glad this government finally got it done. Moreover, there were some apprehensions that the government will create a mere figurehead but, belying expectations, this office is definitely that of an empowered CDS — and that also has to be welcomed.

In terms of strengths and weaknesses, as this is such a dynamic process, it may be still too early to tell. However, one of the strengths, as mentioned earlier, is that it appears to have empowered the office of the CDS. I cannot emphasize how important it is hereinafter for the first CDS, General Bipin Rawat, to go about his job with the right mixture of ambition, prudence, and pragmatism — especially as he has to take on many established bureaucracies. In terms of potential weaknesses, I am not exactly sure what to make of the newly established office of the Department of Military Affairs (DMA), which is to be headed by the CDS. Firstly, in all of my years of studying defense reforms, I have never seen such a proposal being floated by any of the previous reform committees or in any scholarship on this topic. Moreover, to the best of my knowledge, I don’t know of any democracy which has an institutional structure of this sort. I am therefore a little skeptical of how this will play out. But it bears reiterating that we should give these new ideas a year or two before we can properly judge its overall efficacy.

In the coming years, what benchmarks will be useful to gauge the effectiveness of the CDS?

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To gauge the effectiveness of the CDS three benchmarks come to mind. First, the CDS and the DMA have been given an explicit mandate to establish “joint/theater commands.” It would be interesting see how this vision translates into reality. So far, the CDS has only clarified that India need not follow the Western model of joint commands and will come up “with a mechanism that suits the Indian system.” All that is well and good — and I don’t think anyone is asking to blindly ape the West, but the cardinal principle for any joint command, as discussed in an essay published elsewhere, is unity of command and control. The Chinese and Russian models of joint command is not that different from the so-called Western model. In short, if the Indian military is coming up with its unique form of joint command — then it should also spell out clearly why this is so and how this will maximize its military effectiveness. This last factor — maximizing effectiveness (and perhaps fiscal efficiency) — should be the only guiding factor underlying this process and not turf or rank protection.

Second, it will be important to see if the CDS is able to exert his authority with the military and in the ministry. In order to do so he will have to take away some of the powers of the service chiefs and of civilian bureaucrats in the Defense Ministry. How these relationships will play out will be crucial assessing the effectiveness of the CDS.

Third, the CDS will have to play a huge role in capability development, defense planning, and in interservices prioritization. Only if he undertakes this function ruthlessly will he be able to craft military capabilities more appropriately suited for political purposes.

You’ve just written a book on civil-military relations in India, The Absent Dialogue: Politicians, Bureaucrats, and the Military in India. What drew you to study civil-military relations in India?

My initial interest in this topic came from my service in the army. It was during this time that I first heard what I later knew to be a strong article of faith within the community — that civilian mismanagement was the root cause of military inefficiency. Once in graduate school I realized that a lot of literature on the Indian military obsessed about upholding civilian control and, while there considerable references to the cost of this model of civilian control, there were few in-depth studies examining the effect of civil-military relations on military effectiveness. Once I began speaking to members of India’s strategic community, I realized that this topic animated them like no other. That’s how this book became the obsession that it did, and it took me more than a decade to get it done!

There’s a tension between civilian control and military effectiveness in India, it would seem. You make a compelling case in your book that India has taken care to ensure civilian control, but it has given less high-level thought to effectiveness. What needs to be done to enhance effectiveness without compromising too much control?

I think it’s a false dichotomy to imagine that there is a tradeoff between effectiveness and control. As my book argues, more closely integrating civilians and the military and having the former ask well-informed questions of the latter enhances effectiveness and consolidates control. While making my argument, I have five empirical chapters in my book which examine variables most closely related to military effectiveness — weapons procurement, jointness, professional military education, officer promotion policies, and defense planning. In each of these chapters I conclude with some recommendations on how to improve upon these processes.  In general, over time, we have seen a gradual evolution in the manner in which the India undertakes these processes but to complete the transformation we need civilians to more fully come onboard.

Your book underscores the relatively low level of expertise in military affairs among India’s legislators. What can and should be done to better ensure that lawmakers — a vast majority of whom aren’t veterans themselves — understand the military?

I think the expectation that lawmakers, who are full time politicians, have the time to understand the military, and its complex processes, may be a little farfetched. Politics anywhere is a full time vocation, but more so in India as its “parliamentarians answer to vastly larger sums of people than their counterparts in literally every other democracy.” Perhaps others may disagree with me but I think a more useful approach would be to build up expertise among the staff of the parliamentarians and in the civilian sector in general — among academics, analysts, the think tank community, etc. However one cannot build civilian expertise without an administrative system which rewards such an effort and, more importantly, following declassification procedures which allow access to primary documents. I do want to belabor the latter point, (since among other occasions, I have argued for it here, here, here, and here), but I think it’s unacceptable for a democracy to deny its public an opportunity to study its military. Since we do not have such enabling conditions to study the military and there are few professional incentives to do so either, the discourse regarding the military is largely opinion driven. To create such expertise, which the academic community increasingly recognizes as an important component for healthy civil-military relations and to consolidate civilian control, would therefore require serious attention from political leaders which, at least on this particular issue, has not been as forthcoming. Hopefully, as India undertakes this current round of reforms, someone would have the presence of mind to take it on.

This interview has been edited.