By Kartikeya Singh
Earlier this year in May, India’s newly established Defence Planning Committee (DPC) held its first meeting and announced that it will work on an “action plan” to deal with the country’s security challenges. The DPC is a senior decision-making and planning body formed by the central government in April. Chaired by the national security advisor, the DPC further comprises the chiefs of staff of the three defence services. Other members of the DPC include the Defence Secretary, the Foreign Secretary, the Expenditure Secretary, and the Chief of Integrated Defence Staff.
As a signal of the government’s intent to address longstanding structural challenges underlying India’s military organisation, the formation of the DPC was a welcome step. However, in the absence of a Chief of Defence Staff—a post that has been much discussed—the DPC is unlikely to address some of the most pressing weaknesses afflicting the Indian military set-up. These weaknesses include the military’s inability to have a say in the country’s strategic decision-making process as well as inadequate inter-services coordination.
The structural weaknesses undermining military effectiveness today are not the result of a gradual drift into disrepair but of far-reaching measures that were deliberately adopted more than a half-century ago to guard against a threat that no longer exists. These steps and measures are discussed in an excellent historical analysis of the military in the context of India’s democracy by Steven Wilkinson’s in his 2015 book Army and Nation – The Military and Indian Democracy Since Independence.
India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru together with the civilian bureaucracy took calculated steps to diminish the role of the military. Nehru and his counterparts did not take these steps out of some antipathy for the military. Instead, they did so out of a paramount concern to make the military “coup-proof.” The changes they instilled—at least initially—were driven by a desire to make it much more difficult for the military to coordinate, mount and sustain a coup d’état against civilian leadership. One only has to look at the history of India’s western neighbours to recognise that their concerns were not without merit.
Two main measures were undertaken by the political leadership and the civilian bureaucracy that continue to have ramifications for civil-military relations and inter-service coordination. The first was a deliberate decision to sever any role for the military as a direct single-point security adviser to the government via one designated professional that spoke for all three services. Prior to the change, the Commander in Chief, as the head of the three services, was a member of the cabinet. This role was discontinued by Nehru’s first interim government of 1946.
Secondly, the very post of Commander in Chief was subsequently disbanded without any replacement position to oversee, or otherwise coordinate among, the three services. Instead of a unified command structure covering all three services, each of the three forces now had a separate command structure.
These changes were made with two specific purposes: First, to distance the military from political decision-making and thereby deny it any visibility into or say in matters of national security strategy. Second, to make joint coordination and command more difficult so as to lower the risk of any military intervention in the political governance of the country. What is more, these changes were made with the full realisation that they would necessarily undermine the military’s effectiveness in its role as the primary provider of national security.
Time for change
In economic thought, “path dependence” refers to the phenomenon where a current outcome, such as the design features of a machine or an organisation, is a response to a set of objectives and/or constraints that have long ceased to exist. The prevailing outcome in question is out of date and inefficient in the context of the current objectives and constraints.
An example of this phenomenon is this author’s inept use of the “QWERTY” keyboard to type this piece. Studies have shown that the QWERTY keyboard—so named for the first five letters that appear on it—is inefficient in that people can type faster and with fewer errors using alternative keyboard layouts such as the Dvorak keyboards. The layout made its appearance on the early typewriters that appeared well over a century ago. Characters on those mechanical typewriters were mounted on metal “arms” that were susceptible to jamming when neighbouring arms were typed in quick succession. The QWERTY layout solved this technological constraint by identifying characters that commonly appear together in words and then locating these sufficiently far apart on the keyboard. The QWERTY layout is thus a solution to a technological challenge that no longer exists in an age of electronic keyboards. This is a prime example of history continuing to have an extended influence—for reasons ranging from network effects to institutional inertia—on present-day arrangements for which far more effective alternatives are readily available.
The structural weaknesses in the Indian military’s coordination as well as it’s lack of influence over national security strategy are all the result of path dependence. Judged solely against the overarching objective of preventing military intervention in politics and governance, the measures adopted by the civilian leadership have been successful (much like the QWERTY keyboard was preventing keys from jamming in the age of mechanical typewriters).
However, the threat of a military coup has today receded significantly from when the country’s democratic institutions and norms were in their infancy. These institutions serve as a much stronger hedge against a military takeover than deliberately imposed constraints on military effectiveness. The checks on the military that could have been rationalised as a cost worth incurring 70 years ago cannot be justified today.
However, the effects of those constraints have only grown with time. Without a seat at the political decision-making table, the military has no direct visibility into the country’s strategic outlook let alone any ability to shape or inform that outlook. Any effort at capability development is plagued by an approach that is short-term, ad-hoc and reactive at best and prone to intense inter-service rivalries. Furthermore, the cost of this crucial structural weakness will only grow as potential adversaries achieve progressively better coordination and systematically build their capabilities while a culture of inter-services rivalry gets further entrenched at home.
The nature of path dependence suggests that incremental and gradual measures from internal stakeholders—likely to be affected by the institutional inertia that is intrinsic to this phenomenon—will not be sufficient to provide the scale and scope of reform that is needed. The establishment of a Chief of Defence Staff will reverse a deliberately-imposed weakness and is an important first step to break out of the path dependence characterising the Indian military set-up. The problem, however, as John Maynard Keynes once said, “is not so much in developing new ideas as in escaping from old ones.”
Kartikeya Singh is an economist who works in the Washington DC area.
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