This is Part 2 of a two-part article. Part 1 appeared in yesterday’s Opinion page.
The military in India is apolitical and professional, and civilian control is firmly established. India inherited from the British a large defense force, the pattern of military organization, the tenets of military doctrine and the convention of subordination of the military to the civilian authorities. Even the Indianized element of the British Indian Army was so politically apathetic that it was not infected by the nationalist virus. Constitutional inhibitions and bureaucratic structures constrict the role of the military to the defense-security sector. The military establishment retains control of command and operational matters. Military policymaking is firmly in the hands of the civilian Ministry of Defense and Cabinet.
Yet even the Indian Army could one day step in because of increasing frustrations over the career paths of officers. The uniformed officers’ disgruntlement is increased when the army is called in to assist civil authorities, and senior officers end up in a subordinate relationship with civilian officers who are their juniors in age and experience.
A crisis of conscience arises when soldiers trained physically and psychologically to defend a people against foreign enemies are required to turn their firepower on their own citizens. The professional duty of the military is to resist foreign aggression, not to perpetuate an unpopular regime in the face of internal disorders. Alternatively, if it is the legitimate function of an army to shore up a tottering regime, then why not also to change it? Excessive reliance on the army for the maintenance of domestic order is probably the most likely scenario for precipitating military intervention.
A crisis of government resulting from a paralysis of the political and administrative machinery could confront the military with a difficult choice between supporting a government in trouble, withholding support, or taking over the reins of government directly. So far at least, India has escaped general political instability caused by a total breakdown of government.
A crisis of identity may arise when the apolitical institution becomes the prop on which a government survives. Should the army remain aloof from the political process and preserve its neutral identity at the cost of the collapse of government, or should it step in to the benefit of the ruling regime?
The military could act to displace a civilian regime of which it is contemptuous. Derisive and dismissive attitudes toward politicians corrode the psychological barrier to a coup — the legitimacy of the political order. Increasing corruption and criminalization of politics would increase the temptation for the military to take control of the affairs of state. When the political, bureaucratic, police and paramilitary institutions have decayed, the military becomes the custodian of the national conscience, as has arguably happened in Pakistan.
The military can step in if there is a general perception that the profession is being unduly politicized. This happens when promotions are seen to be based on close ties to the political elite: “crony careerism.”
Additional tools in the hands of government for playing politics with generals include post-retirement appointments as governors and ambassadors. The combination of sycophancy among generals and corruption among politicians carries its own risks of officer alienation.
The caution from within has been reinforced by lessons from without, in Bangladesh to the immediate east and Pakistan to the immediate west. In neither case did bouts of military rule help to infuse the political order with the efficiency and discipline of the armed forces. In both, the costs to the military included substantial public hostility to the military institution itself. The Indian military is proud of its standing with the people of India, and unlikely to jeopardize it lightly.
A country of India’s size, diversity and complexity could not be governed effectively without general political support. The army’s occasional involvement in the maintenance of law and order has exposed it to the reality that India is ungovernable by coercive means alone. In other countries, the military has sometimes stepped in to play its role as the guardian of national honor and unity. South Asia itself offers an instructive and sobering warning: Pakistan broke asunder in 1971 under a military regime.
Understandable as the developments in Pakistan may be, they are not likely to trigger a copy-cat coup in India.
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