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The tyranny of the IAS - The Observer

N K Pant ()
October 23, 1998

Title: The tyranny of the IAS
Author: N K Pant
Publication: The Observer
Date: October 23, 1998

It is another thing that wily mandarins of the civil services may
ultimately water down the BJP-led coalition's promise to. the
armed forces that their state of preparedness, morale and combat
effectiveness shall receive early attention and appropriate
remedial action. But the fact is important that some thoughts
indeed were spared this time by the politicians for soldiers,
sailors and airmen while preparing the national agenda of
governance. After sidelining the military establishment for
almost half a century, it's a good augury that the political
masters are inclined to give the armed forces a place of honour
in India's democratic mosaic. This does not mean that the top
uniformed hierarchy will charter its own course. As in other
democracies of the West, it will definitely be subservient to the
political party ruling the roost at the Centre. Thanks to
bureaucrats, so far in no other democracy were the armed forces
given so insignificant a role on policy-making as in our country.

In any country, the military represents a highly organised and
disciplined group knit together by traditions, customs and
working habits, but above all, by the need to work together and
depend on each other in times of crisis and conflict dependence
that can mean difference between life and death.

The military approach or style can further re-enforce this
separateness. The organised and predictable character of military
life frequently results in a straightforward and uncomplicated
view of the world which contrasts with the more complex and, by
comparison, often apparently murky world of bureaucrats and
politicians. The aim must be to ensure that the military are kept
firmly within the fabric of society, that they serve the nation
and do not assume position of dominance. Moreover, through an
appropriate constitutional mechanism, armed forces should only be
deployed under the direct authority of democratically elected

The current political, social and economic realities all over the
world still make the armed forces the basic instrument of the
state. They remain the guarantor of a country's stability and
consequently of its economic prospects as well. Civil supremacy,
which is essential in a democracy, means that the armed forces
carry out the orders of the government, i e the political party
in power, not the file-pushing civil servants. The bureaucratic
cadre in India is incidentally trained in subjects like
panchayati raj, community development and district-level
administration. Most of their initial, middle and senior scale
service is spent in mofussil towns, district headquarters and
state capitals, grappling with local issues, lording over the
services and politicking. Thus, they develop a local and
provincial mindset. The Indian system of governance finds such
civil servants holding key appointments in the central ministries
and departments.

In this context, the former Speaker of Lok Sabha, Mr P A Sangma,
had even suggested dismantling the bureaucracy which, he felt,
was standing in the way of progress. In his view, Indian
bureaucracy had led to unimaginable project delays which has
resulted in cost overruns. The .projects concerning the armed
forces have undergone similar agonies. It is really strange that
civil servants on deputation from their respective state cadres
and with no experience in the intricacies and sophistication of
defence hold the reins of power in the ministry of defence. They
are unsuited to assess external threats, evaluate intelligence,
judge the capabilities of possible adversaries, examine various
kinds of terrain and plan the structuring of forces. Due to lack
of training, they cannot prepare policy-papers related to vital
issues of defence and security. These, in turn, are prepared by
the uniformed officers in the service headquarters and submitted
to the MoD for perusal. This explains why the decision-making
process concerning national security and the armed forces is poor
as it is in the hands of people who do not understand the ground
realities. Many of the bureaucrats do not even know the
equivalent ranks of the army, navy and air force. They mostly
have the same mindset while dealing with generals, admirals and
air marshals as they do as district magistrates dealing with
superintendents of police in districts or the chief secretaries
with the director generals of police in state capitals. There is
possibly no country in the world where the defence services are
under the control of the civil services. In other countries, the
m~ commanders are accountable only to the political executive. In
the Indian context, if the ministries of external affairs and the
railways can be administered by their respective cadres, why
can't the ministry of defence? It certainly needs to be
integrated with the three service headquarters and run by the
armed forces themselves. The Administrative Reforms Commission
had rightly recommended that the principle of civilian control
over the defence machinery should be interpreted not to mean
bureaucratic or civil service control but eventually political
control by Parliament and the cabinet. The Arun Singh Committee,
constituted much later, was also believed to have expressed
similar views.

In a memorandum submitted by the three services to the Fifth Pay
Commission in 1995, the armed forces had proposed that the
defence ministry should be integrated with the three service HQs.
It was argued that such a unified s would not only lead to
considerable saving of money but also ensure quicker decisions
and a coordinated approach in defence expenditure and planning.
Since the proposal fell on deaf bureaucratic ears, the army has
been toying with the idea of shedding 50,000 combatant vacancies
from its field units in order to save Rs 500 crore for
modernisation of its fighting equipment.

The experts for a long time have been suggesting creation of the
post of chief of defence staff not only overlooking the three
services but responsible for administrative management of the
defence ministry. This integrated system is in vogue in Western
democracies such as USA, UK and France, and needs to be
introduced in India too. The present toothless Chiefs of Staff
Committee headed by the senior most serving chief is an entirely
ad hoc arrangement.

Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, while stating that his government will
pay highest priority to the defence and security issues, had
emphatically added that he was not at all worried about anyone's
annoyance or perception on this issue. One hopes that these words
do not turn out to be mere rhetoric and get translated into
reality by integrating the three services with the ministry of
defence whose flab needs to be shed.

Even the United States' defence department is planning to trim
28,000 jobs from its civilian work force and overhaul its vast
bureaucracy to save money and improve efficiency.

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