Why military diplomacy needs bigger role in India

Military literature in India often is limited to focusing on operations undertaken by men and women in uniform. Rarely does it analyse or weave in the civil or diplomatic decisions that dictate military action. The absence of a wholesome narrative is perhaps symptomatic of the deep suspicion that hangs over relations between the civil and military bureaucracy. Gen VP Malik’s latest book India’s Military Conflicts and Diplomacy: An Inside view of Decision Making, gives us a peep into how the military gets roped in or left out in important national decisions, depending on who is at the helm. It is an insiders account and not a ringside view.

As India’s Army Chief for three years (1997-2000)–the 1998 nuclear tests and Kargil conflict happened on his watch–Gen Malik had been part of India’s highest decision-making apparatus on security and defence. But even before he became the Army Chief, he was involved in and witness to some momentous events that needed India’s military intervention in the immediate neighbourhood.

When in 1988 Maldivian President Abdul Gayoom was under siege from rebels determined to overthrow him in Male, Indian armed forces created history by successfully capturing the mercenaries and the rebel leader after flying 3,000 km from Agra to Male! All the three forces–Army, navy air force–contributed to the smooth conduct of an unprecedented operation. But very little is known about the way India’s politico-diplomatic leadership of the time reacted to the situation. The book fills that gap.

As Gen Malik writes: “While the military operation, a part of the mission, was witnessed and discussed widely all over the world, not many people are aware of the drama that took place at the highest level of the government before the concerned political, military and civilian leadership worked out a joint plan for the intervention.The single most factor for our success in the operation was the speed at which it was decided, planned and executed jointly by the armed forces…unfortunately, many of these lessons have been lost at the political and bureaucratic levels. This has happened primarily because no one prepared a complete report on the decision making process, planning and coordination in any of the different ministries or service headquarters of the government.”

There have been numerous debates about the condition of the country’s higher defence management apparatus. Instead of evolving into a seamless structure in the six decades since Independence, it has in my view degenerated into a disjointed, fractious entity with ad hoc appendages getting added on to existing mechanisms further muddying the waters. Gen Malik has taken examples of India’s military-diplomatic forays in recent decades to illustrate the need for improvement in higher defence management of ┬áthe country. Operation Pawan, India’s disastrous military intervention on Sri Lanka under Rajiv Gandhi and Gen K. Sundarji is analysed in some detail and so is Operation Shakti, India’s successful nuclear tests in 1998.However for me, one of the bonus of this book is the insight provided by Gen Malik on Operation Khukri, India’s peacekeeping operation in Sierra Leone, the West African country under a UN mandate. It is one of the best examples of successful military-diplomatic-political intervention.

If foreign and defence policies are considered two sides of the same coin, as Gen Malik writes, then it is incumbent upon both the defence and external affairs ministries to have a certain level of trust, confidence and understanding. That cooperation, despite occasional successes, remains a chimera in Indian context. Very often, the Indian military’s advice is at variance with India’s diplomatic stand. India’s recent engagements in Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bangladesh and the mess that New Delhi finds itself in some of these countries is, in my view, result of the two ministries working in independent verticals.

Gen Malik’s book, his second after the one exclusive focused on the 1999 Kargil conflict, is an important work simply because a former military chief has highlighted the shortcomings in the diplomatic-military synergy. His aim is to draw lessons from India’s own experience in these matters. Written in a easy-to-understand manner and peppered with several anecdotes many of us remember hearing about, the book is a must read for students of military history. Gen Malik also has first hand account from many of the main players involved in some of these operations. As a former Army Chief, he of course has the advantage of knowing and working with many of them!

Gen Malik concludes: “Given today’s rapidly changing geo-strategic environment, it is imperative that we change our mindset and attitude and look beyond narrow boundaries defined by ‘turf’ and parochialism. Politico-military strategy is too vital a subject to be dealt with in watertight compartments. We need to re-engineer our national security paradigm and defence management structure and processes to make them more holistic and broad based. Only then can we be fully prepared to take on the role that we see for ourselves in the global community…” In short military diplomacy is needed to be taken more seriously.

That however, as the former Army Chief himself knows, is a tall order, at least in the foreseeable future. And that is the tragedy of India, a wannabe regional, if not a global power!