January 25, 2002


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Admiral (retd) J G Nadkarni

Doing your own thing

The sudden replacement of the commander of Indian Army's principal strike force has raised many eyebrows across the country. It need not be so. Ironically, the action displays the growing maturity of our top political leadership. It is also a welcome sign that India is gradually turning from a soft to a hard state. Unfortunately, the defence ministry's spin doctors have tried to put a gloss on the whole thing by calling it a "routine transfer." Transfers, routine or otherwise, do not take place at short notice, certainly not before the newcomer's appointment has even been cleared by the appointments committee of the Cabinet.

A nation's armed forces are the instruments of state power, to be used by the nation's leadership to further national goals and policies. In a democracy the strategic goals requiring the use of the armed forces are defined by its civilian leadership. Unfortunately, there are times when some of the generals tend to forget that they are merely tools in the hands of the government. They are the pawns in a gigantic game of international chess and pawns cannot have a life of their own. They have to move as dictated by the player. The only thing that they can do is hope and pray that their master is an accomplished player. Sometimes, however, even pawns have to be sacrificed for the eventual victory.

In India, unfortunately due to the inexperience and ignorance of the political leadership in matters military, civil rule has tended to become civilian rule. India's military has always chafed at the bit when controlled by the babus. Quite rightly they feel that they know far more about strategy than the mandarins in the South Block. On the other hand, the politicians can point to the occasions when they have listened to the army with disastrous results. The 1962 debacle against China was a result of Jawaharlal Nehru falling prey to an inexperienced army general's advice. Similarly, our better-forgotten adventure in Sri Lanka was undertaken at the behest of an ambitious army chief.

The exact circumstances surrounding the present case have not surfaced nor will they ever be made public in our secrecy shrouded environment. But if the grapevine is to be believed it was due to the enthusiasm of the commander who exceeded his brief. By deploying his forces that much closer than was required by his superiors he greatly enhanced the chances of an accidental war. Generals are meant to fight and win wars. They are not expected to start wars. When Georges Clemenceau declared that war was too serious a matter to be left to the generals, he had a point.

Lieutenant General Kapil Vij is not the first military commander to be replaced nor will he be the last. Most of the changes have taken place during war when the commander in question has failed to produce the desired results. One fails to understand why such sacking should raise the national hackles. No eyebrows are raised when a coach is dismissed if his team loses frequently or a corporate bigwig is shown the door if the balance sheet is full of red ink. The Ford Motor company sacked its CEO Jaques Nasser overnight when the company incurred billions of dollars in loss.

Abraham Lincoln sacked three army commanders before he found in Ulysses Grant a charismatic and able leader to lead his forces to victory. During the Second World War, Churchill fired Claude Auchinleck, no mean soldier himself and who had borne the brunt of Rommel's onslaught, replacing him with Montgomery who managed to fashion a victory at Alamein.

Sometime, of course, as in the instant case, military commanders have to be sacked for following their own private agenda. The most famous case involves General MacArthur who wanted to carry the Korean War into mainland China. The famous General Patton, whose victorious armies were making spectacular progress towards Berlin, had to be held in check because it was not in line with allied strategy. Just recently, in his new anti-fundamentalist avatar, General Musharaff had to get rid of two senior officers who were his ardent supporters at one time.

The finalisation of overall strategy to further national goals has always been the prerogative of political leadership. The good leader will always take the advice of his military commanders before finalising the course of action. However, once the decision is made it is expected that the military will dutifully follow the civilian directive. During World War II, there were many occasions when Roosevelt's military commanders disagreed with the overall strategy. But eventually Roosevelt had his say. The war in Europe was given priority over the war in the Pacific. Against the advice of his military subordinates Roosevelt agreed to defer the second front to 1944 instead of 1943.

A military commander who wants to do his own thing has no place in the order of things. This is how it should be. The commander in the field cannot be expected to be aware of many things which are known to the political leader. His vision is restricted to his immediate surroundings making it impossible for him to design national strategy. The country cannot afford the luxury of a military commander doing his own thing.

Before communications became instant, the field commander was allowed considerable leeway. Given the overall national strategy and broad goals, he was left to manage things on his own. Ships at sea were out of communications with their superiors for weeks on end and the commander on the spot had to use his wits and fend for himself in doing things which he considered best for his country. As late as twenty years ago the admiral at sea could prevent shore interference by shutting off all communications. At such times the higher ups ashore were left with no other option except what was known as "informatory control." Today, thanks to the satellite, the man at sea is in constant touch by telephone with headquarters and the temptation to control his each and every move from shore is greater. The possibility of a field commander doing things on his own have reduced considerably.

The task of the commander-in-chief is becoming increasingly difficult today. On the one hand he is expected to encourage initiative in his subordinates. On the other, lack of control may result in the subordinate doing things best left undone. Controlling juniors was quite difficult just fifty years ago. However, the weapons available to subordinates were also not as lethal as they are in modern times. A junior officer today commands a missile boat with eight deadly missiles at his command. A division commander tomorrow may have at his disposal tactical nuclear missiles. Senior military commanders may be responsible for the custody and delivery of second strike nukes. Under these circumstances rigid control from the top is absolutely necessary if not fully desirable. Better to come down with an iron hand over subordinates taking matters into their own hands than to start an accidental war, nuclear or otherwise.

Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

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