24 - 06 - 2018

Military & ‘unelected’ defence ministers

Much water has flown down the mighty Brahmaputra. Yet, it has not washed away the shame of the 1962 Sino-Indian war when, thanks to political and bureaucratic blundering, India suffered a humiliating defeat and the entire blame was put on the Army.

Civil-military relationship was dismal then and continues to be so. Despite this over half-a-century old painful experience, no lessons have been learnt and politicians and bureaucrats are vague and unclear about even defining this relationship.  

Nevertheless, the armed forces have attempted a definition. In his treatise 'The Soldier and the State' (1998), the former Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat (retd), lays it down with a fair amount of clarity: "The modern military profession exists as part of the government insofar as the term 'government' includes the executive departments of the nation-state... Modern democracies, therefore, pay great attention to the supremacy of the political class over the military in governance, normally referred to as 'civilian control of the military'. This is clearly how it should be, since all ultimate power and decision-making should be wielded by the elected representatives of the people." Successive Chiefs of Army, Navy and Air Force have endorsed this definition.

Civilian control of the military is a doctrine in military and political science that places the ultimate responsibility for a country's strategic decision-making in the hands of the civilian political leadership, rather than professional military officers. A lack of civilian control over the military may result in a state within a state. The civilian control ideal is summarised as "the proper subordination of a competent, professional military to the ends of policy as determined by civilian authority."

Civilian control is often seen as a prerequisite feature of a stable liberal democracy. The use of the term in scholarly analyses is in the context of a democracy governed by elected representatives, though the subordination of the military to political control is not unique to only democracies. 

The role of the military in a democracy is an ever-relevant concern which was raised by Plato 2,500 years ago. The principle of political control of the armed forces as we know it today is rooted in the concept of a representative democracy. It refers to the supremacy of civilian institutions, based on popular sovereignty, over the defence and security policymaking apparatus, including the military leadership.

Democratic control should always be a two-way process between the armed forces and society. In a democracy, firm constitutional guarantees should protect the state, including the armed forces, from two types of potential dangers: politicians, who have military ambitions, and military with political ambitions.

There are a number of shared principles of how to establish the armed forces in a democratic society. They include indispensable prerequisites to organise and guarantee a proper civilian direction and control of the forces. These are essentially the existence of a clear legal and constitutional framework defining the basic relationship between the state and the armed forces and the role of parliament in legislating on defence and security matters. These also include the hierarchical responsibility of the military to the government through a civilian organ of public administration -- Ministry of Defence -- that is charged, as a general rule, with the direction and supervision of its activity.

The integration of the military into state and society also follows strict. Adhering to these principles, our military is under the control of the Government of India, Ministry of Defence. As the representative of the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, it is the Defence Minister who wields 'civilian supremacy over the military'. It is imperative, therefore, that the Defence Minister of the country should be an 'elected representative of the people' and not someone nominated by the party chief and voted by some party MLAs. 

This cardinal principle has been repeatedly violated by the Modi government. First it was Arun Jaitley, a defeated Lok Sabha candidate from the Amritsar constituency in Punjab, a state that contributes a large share to India's military. When the Modi government was sworn in, Arun Jaitley was made 'part-time' Defence Minister, though the BJP along with its NDA allies had more than 300 elected representatives in Parliament. Months later, Manohar Parikkar from Goa was brought in as 'full time' Defence Minister through the Rajya Sabha route, only to make his rapid return to the sunny beaches! And the ministry went back to Arun Jaitley as if there was no 'elected representative' in the stables of the BJP or the NDA.

As if to rub it in, for the fourth time now, we have an unelected Nirmala Sitharaman as the Defence Minister. While he brought in several 'super-performers' into his Cabinet as full-fledged ministers or ministers of state with independent charge, Prime Minister Modi could not find one elected representative to fill this sensitive position. Is there such dearth of talent?

The underlying principle behind an elected representative controlling the military is that in a democracy like ours, the people are sovereign and being controlled by their elected representatives means that the military is under sovereign control. This sovereignty cannot be usurped by the PM by making a person not elected by the people directly as the Defence Minister. This is particularly so because we know what kind of vested interests are obliged with Rajya Sabha tickets these days.

If this situation is accepted, tomorrow an arms merchant or lobbyist can be brought in through the Rajya Sabha and made Defence Minister who would exercise 'civilian control over military.' Can this be countenanced?


MG Devasahayam…The writer is a former Army and IAS officer