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Admiral J G Nadkarni (retired)

In defence of bureaucrats

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The antipathy between defence servicemen and their civilian counterparts in New Delhi is as old as the ages. So far both have been happy in trying their routine exercises in one-upmanship, name-calling and occasional sulks. Outwardly a fašade of polite camaraderie and back-slapping has been maintained. The business of defence has continued, not smoothly perhaps but at least with minimum hiccups.

Recently, however, matters appear to have turned for the worse. The media has happily reported that both sides are now preparing for the ensuing battle, that the two sides are not even on talking terms. No less a person than the defence minister has admitted that all is not well in South Block and asked the service chiefs for their recommendations for reorganising the defence headquarters. If only he had dusted off the hundreds that have been lying in the minister's cupboard all these years!

Indians love scapegoats. How comforting to know that someone else is responsible for all one's inefficiency, ill luck and problems. For the politician it is always the "foreign hand" or his "politically motivated" opponent. (If a politician cannot be politically motivated who else can?) For the serviceman it is always the bureaucrat. If the army finds the going tough in Siachen then it is the fault of that babu who did not sanction enough equipment. If the air force planes are crashing more than normal it is all due to the bureaucrat vacillating over the advanced jet trainer. And if the navy has not been able to place order for new ships it is all due to bureaucratic bungling. The armed forces cannot afford "an entrenched, all-powerful, recruited-for-life civil service, whose vested interests and hijacking of policy formulations have served to curtail the country's progress" says a recent naval paper. Really!

Why is there such animosity between the two arms of our security mechanism? Are the bureaucrats that bad or are they more sinned against than sinners?

Given the background of a service officer and his progress through ranks, a clash between servicemen and bureaucracy is inevitable. The internal organisation of each service is more of a fiefdom than democracy. The battalion commander or the commanding officer of a ship is a petty chieftain. The division commander is king and the service chief an absolute monarch, at least within his service. Within their small kingdoms their word is law. Discussion is rare. Dissent frowned upon. Major dissent is a passport to oblivion.

During his early service the officer is isolated form the realities of the outer world. Eventually when he arrives at his service headquarters for the first time, probably as a brigadier or major general, he has a chest full of medals and an ego the size of a pumpkin. He is confronted for the first time by a well-seasoned bureaucrat. It is a culture shock. Being used to rule by fiat where he hardly had to reason out a case, he becomes angry when even a pan-chewing section officer can pick ten holes in his staff-college-background logical proposal. The seeds of antipathy are sown.

By the time he becomes the chief, a serviceman is determined to prove his superiority. By now he has learned that over the years the serviceman has lost his precedence. He is heir to a load of cliches. "Civil control does not mean control by the civil service," he tells everyone. His juniors are expecting him to 'thump the table' even when there is no table to thump. He does not want to be accused of kowtowing to the bureaucrat and certainly not of angling for a governorship, although no service chief has been made even a dogcatcher for the past ten years.

Can any co-operation exist between the serviceman and the bureaucrat in these circumstances?

A service chief would like to rule like Aurangzeb. His idea of a defence organisation is that the taxpayer should place the approved thousands of millions in his hands and ask him to run the army or navy. No questions asked. After all he is the professional. What does that civilian know about tanks and aircraft and ships? And yet as Robert McNamara showed, his whiz kids knew far more about defence and its management than the old fogies in the Pentagon.

The much-maligned bureaucrat in the defence ministry has two useful functions. Firstly he bridles the unfettered and sometimes fanciful exuberance of servicemen. It is the bureaucrat who reminds the armed forces, to frame rules and work within those rules. It is he who reminds them for the first time to work within a budget. In essence he acts as the essential check and balance on the serviceman, which has been lacking in his early career.

Take promotions for example. Until the mid-sixties the services did not have institutionalised rules for promotion. It was a nagging bureaucracy who compelled the services to frame rules for promotion and stick by them. When a set of promotions is queried it is then called interference by the bureaucracy. In such cases you can bet your bottom dollar that some rule has been broken to favour someone.

"How can the secretary question the decision of eight wise men with a combined service of over 200 years?" goes the plaint. More often than not it is the fancy of one wise man at the head of the table and seven nodding their heads. Experienced hands know that no case has or can ever come back, which is strictly according to the promotion rules.

The second and even more important job of the bureaucracy is to shield the serviceman from the fancies and foibles of politicians. If India's defence services have by and large remained apolitical it is in large measure because the bureaucracy has successfully carried out this task. Some call it the "politician-bureaucrat" nexus. Possibly. Yet it is far more acceptable than a servicemen-politician nexus were the bureaucrats are shown the door. Recently in fact servicemen have rallied the advantages of getting close to their political masters and have begun to circumvent the bureaucrats.

Servicemen blame the bureaucrats of being unsympathetic to their requirements. Yet in most cases the serviceman fails to do his detailed homework. For years now the defence ministry has been urging the three services to produce detailed budgets for their service. The US defence budget, for example, is presented to the congress in 14 thick volumes. It goes into minute details including, for instance, the pay of the CNO's gardener or the stationery budget of the Naval War College. India's armed forces forward their budget to the defence ministry on ten pages of paper under broad headings and then expect about Rs 10 billion to be appropriated after a half page note!

This is, of course, not to give a blank endorsement of excellence and efficiency to the defence bureaucracy. There are black sheep on both sides of the corridor. And yet some of the most illustrious brains in the country have occupied the defence secretary's chair in the past. H M Patel, P V R Rao, K B Lal, Harish Sarina and the irrepressible T N Seshan.

The defence bureaucrat works under many handicaps. At lower levels the ministry is staffed by promotes from clerical cadres. Without doubt they lack vision, knowledge and dynamism. Secondly, due to the peculiar career pattern of a central services officer, they are all birds of passage. Knowing that they will be only around for a few years they do not bother to study defence. And yet those who have had the fortune of serving in the defence ministry on more than one occasion bring considerable knowledge and experience to their task.

Finally he has to put up with the idiosyncrasies, foibles, ignorance and demands of his political bosses, who may change three or four times in a matter of few years. The fact that he rarely passes on all the bosses' ridiculous requirements to the services is something to be thankful for.

Will a reorganisation of defence headquarters help? The army, for example, is keen to have a chief of defence staff. Ironically, they seem to be unaware of the fact that in the present set-up the army chief is de facto the CDS. Asked how they treat the services, a wise politician candidly said, "Well, we always listen carefully to the army, we humour the air force and we ignore the navy."

If the defence minister is keen on reorganising the defence set-up, he might pay heed to that wise Roman, Petronius the Arbiter. "Each time we were defeated," said Petronius, "we reorganised and each reorganisation led to a bigger chaos and a bigger defeat."

Servicemen have two choices. They can continue to sit in their ivory towers, nurse their egos and thump the table. Alternatively they can make up their minds to make the system work by co-operating and a little give and take.

Given determination, any system can work. Bloated egos and rigid stands will defeat any reorganisation.

J G Nadkarni

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