Crises, especially ones that do not end too badly, can be a good thing. India’s democracy is full of such examples. For instance, the trauma of the Emergency discredited the appeal of authoritarianism among most Indians and the 1991 balance of payments crisis led to first-generation economic reforms.
This also applies to our military experience. The 1962 defeat led to massive militarisation and helped achieve a more credible outcome in the 1965 war and a famous victory in the 1971 war. Similarly, the 1999 Kargil war resulted in significant, long overdue national security reforms. How might historians look back upon the current India-China border crisis and what can we take away from it?
But two caveats. First, this crisis was not of India’s making as revealed by the military’s scramble in responding to Chinese troop deployments in May 2020. Distracted by the pandemic, the government took a while and eventually came up with an appropriate tit-for-tat manoeuvre in end-August. Second, the Indian military has just embarked on perhaps its most significant institutional reform, triggered by the prime minister’s (PM)’s decision to create a Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). However, apart from speculative media stories, there has been no official document released by the first CDS, General Bipin Rawat. Commenting on unconfirmed reports, then, just becomes an exercise in punditry.
Yet, to the credit of the Indian Army, the senior leadership appears to be raising deeper questions. For instance, one of the offensive strike corps, historically tasked to operate on the western border, is now being given a responsibility towards the north. Such “rebalancing,” as Army Chief General MM Naravane, put it, was long overdue but raises more questions. Was a crisis necessary to bring about such a change? If the answer is yes, then there is an even more chilling prospect — what other skeletons lie buried, undiscovered, till the next crisis?
There also seems to greater awareness of the need to reform professional military education — the most-effective method to engineer an intellectual shift. Reportedly, this initiative has also come from the Army Chief and there are hectic consultations within the organisation.
Laudable though these initiatives are, there are more systemic issues — germane to the military’s internal organisation — requiring urgent attention. For instance, one of biggest sources of concern is the pension bill. As defence authors Laxman Singh Behera and Vinay Kaushal point out, “Rise in the pension expenditure has a significant crowding out effect on stores and modernisation, two major components that determine nation’s war-fighting ability.” The current approach to this problem seems to be two-fold — a farcical three-year “Tour of Duty” to attract the young and an effort to prevent pensionable soldiers from leaving. Both represent a short-term “presentism” approach.
It is better to ask larger questions — why were the terms of the short service commission changed in 2006 and was that the best decision? Prior to 2006, under the terms of the short service scheme, officers served for five years and then opted to remain or leave immediately without pension. This helped tap talent and avoid pension costs. However, from 2006, the length of service was increased from five to 10 years. Logically, officers would be reluctant to leave without pension after serving for 10 years and, instead, opt for 10 more years. This defeated the purpose of the scheme altogether. Unsurprisingly, therefore, there are demands now to revisit it entirely. The problem lies with the organisational culture of policymaking — which is driven more by the opinion of senior officers than by facts.
Another issue requiring attention is the rapid rotation of senior officers. Currently, in an effort to suit career progression requirements, corps and division commanders typically serve for 15 to 18 months. This is too little time to be effective at too critical a position. Consider this — 14 Corps, the formation responsible for the Ladakh frontier, has been commanded by 19 Corps Commanders (including the present incumbent) over the last 21 years. This Corps has two divisions under it and, in this period, each has been commanded by at least 15 different commanders. Such a revolving door system inherently leads to the proverbial buck-passing or brushing problems under the carpet. In short, career-based considerations, rather than operational imperatives, often dictate the postings of senior officers. One way to address this is to have longer tenures, like currently in vogue for army commanders, in key operational formations.
Ultimately it is difficult for the service chief, no matter how well-meaning or competent, to implement systemic reforms. The current effort at professional military education reform, for instance, will be doomed to fail without a comprehensive effort at declassification — which the military cannot do on its own.
For the Ladakh crisis to be the trigger for effective reform, therefore, civilian buy-in is key. In terms of defence policy, PM Narendra Modi’s first term in office was underwhelming. The second term began with the big-bang CDS reform, which, however, needs to be sustained with further steps. Civilians need to focus, laser-like, perhaps by creating a Defence Reforms Unit nested within the National Security Council, to push the military to adopt necessarily painful organisational reforms. It would be counter-productive if, during this crucial phase, the civilian leadership is seen to be asleep at the wheel.
Anit Mukherjee is a non-resident fellow, Centre for Social and Economic Progress, and an associate professor, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore The views expressed are personal.