June 06, 2021

The Bureaucratisation of the Professional Indian Military

B Arjun

The formalisation of officers appointments equips them with financial powers for better efficiency and brings them at par with their civilian counterparts in the same department. The elevation of the military officers to civilian ranks in the MoD has largely been welcomed by most commentators and analysts of military affairs. The move is being perceived as a step in the right direction to rectify the anomaly in higher defence management and facilitate the much-vaunted military modernisation.

Before the DMA, which came into being in January 2020, the department of defence (DoD), headed by the defence secretary, managed all capital acquisitions as well as revenue expenditure of the three services. The defence secretary represented the three services in most forums.

This changed after the formation of DMA and the appointment of General Bipin Rawat as secretary DMA, currently. The Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) is the single-point military adviser to the defence minister. The three services are no longer the “attached offices” of the DoD but directly come under DMA.

As per the existing rules and procedures, the DMA looks after the procurement for the three services – barring capital acquisitions. DMA is engaged in giving a boost to the concept of joint-ness in the services, establish joint theatre commands, synergise the procurement and training processes through joint planning and integration. It is also mandated to promote the indigenisation of defence equipment.

This is clearly an indication that the power and role of the DMA within the MoD is expanding. The increased influence of the military officers in MoD is generating fear among the established civilian bureaucracy. Military is seen to be creeping ahead to take over the Department of Defence (DoD) and acquire power to manage the capital expenditure as well prepare the defence budget.

The fear is accentuated by the fact that MoD is fast fragmenting. It is on the verge of losing management of the 42 Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) units that are in the process of being privatised. The DRDO is also demanding disentangling from MoD to become an autonomous body, akin to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO).

Achieving parity with civilian bureaucracy in defence decision-making hierarchy has been one of the cherished dreams of the armed forces.  The Indian military has desired to control all three functions of the MoD - making defence policy, building military capability, and conduct of military operations.

The armed forces have enjoyed full operational autonomy. However, on the policymaking and arms procurement fronts, the military has often complained that the politicians rely far too much “on transient, generalist MoD civil servants, drawn from diverse backgrounds,” rather than reposing faith in the vertically specialised staff at the service headquarters.

For a long time, the military was proud of its exclusivity. It wanted to preserve the distinct character that enabled it to follow “elevated ethical and moral code, far higher than that directing the venal and nepotistic civil bureaucracy.” But all that is fast-changing, the military elite is happy to don civilian ranks to acquire more power within the polity.

The military mindset is militating against remaining on the fringes of the elite power club, without of course measuring the consequences of such a brash approach.

For long, the military blamed the politician-bureaucratic nexus for all the delays and non-evolution of national security strategy. After the development of the Modi cult in the country, the politicians were removed from the equation and bureaucrats became the sole target.

For all that the armed forces have suffered during the seven-year rule of Prime Minister Modi, whether it was lack of bulletproof jackets or one-rank-one pension (OROP), the bureaucrats in the MoD or finance ministry incurred the wrath of the military community. This helped save the PM and PMO who have been equally involved in giving final approval to all decisions that have adversely affected the armed forces since 2014.

Interestingly, after the formation of DMA, General Bipin Rawat, the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) and also “one of 90-odd secretary rank officers in India’s federal government,” is everybody's favourite whipping boy. A lot of his decisions, like stopping disability pension, and his proposed code of conduct for governing retired soldiers, have received flak from the veterans' community.

He was expected to be the voice of the armed forces within MoD. But he has belied all hopes. He is alleged to be either “taking the path of least resistance and choosing not to back them or meekly opting to obey higher diktats as that, in turn, could be rewarding.” 

In a more recent move, the commandant of the Army Base Hospital in Delhi was arbitrarily transferred even as his organisation was fully involved in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. It was reported that according to Army HQs the commandant’s posting was routine in order to de-stress the general officer and was carried out by the Director General Armed Forces Medical Services, which is directly under MoD. This statement led a retired Lt General to ask:  “Then who ordered the army to issue these clarifications - Brown Saheb (BS), the Defence Secretary, or the CDS?”

Gen Rawat’s proximity to PMO is making him appear as a ‘committed bureaucra’ t rather than as a general who would stand up in the MoD to preserve the rights and privileges of the armed forces.

Although he claims to be apolitical, his actions indicate a different story. In December 2020, the CDS Bipin Rawat accompanied by UP CM Yogi Adityanath, visited the controversial Gorakhnath temple in Gorakhpur and offered prayers. He also spoke at Maharana Pratap Education Council, run by the Gorakhnath Temple. In a highly polarised political environment in the country, such acts give an impression that the Indian military is gradually getting politicised and may become loyal to an ideology and not the constitution.

Any analysis of the current transformation in the MoD cannot discount the fact that the changes are also influenced by two external factors – privatisation of defence and quick establishment of interoperability with America, our strategic partner.

The twin elements see bureaucratic red tape as an impediment to achieving goals of privatisation and interoperability.  They want to see a defence bureaucracy with relatively less experience push their agenda at greater speeds and with the least amount of resistance and friction.
India’s military partnership with America cannot be seen in terms of a normal diplomatic engagement.

America is a military behemoth currently engaged in protecting its global hegemony. India is just one of the many allies it is integrating into its network. It expects us to speed up our procedures for easy and quick integration of our armed forces.

How the newly constituted and growing defence bureaucracy will keep itself insulated from the lure of big money that floats in the corridors of power is a question that the armed forces have to ask. What impact it will have on their apolitical and secular ethos is the issue that they have to confront sooner rather than later.

Only time will tell whether the defence bureaucrats would rectify the “institutional weakness” in the higher defence management or be socialised into the same decrepit structure that they are trying to jettison.