The defence gravy train

Bidanda Chengappa | Updated on March 12, 2018 Published on April 06, 2012


The brouhaha over Chief of Army Staff General V. K. Singh focuses on procurement of military hardware and allegations of corruption. It has led to deterioration in civil-military relations. Invariably, civil-military relations tend to deteriorate over issues like procurement of military hardware or promotion/appointment of senior officers. Given that procurement of military hardware involves kickbacks — as reminiscent of the mid-1980s Bofors scandal that triggered the collapse of the Rajiv Gandhi government — tensions in civil-military relations are inevitable.


While the military leadership is interested in acquisition of hardware in terms of its capabilities as highlighted in the product specifications, the political leadership is keen on the highest bidder who offers the largest kickbacks. For instance, former Navy Chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat had differences with then Defence Minister George Fernandes regarding the appointment of his deputy chief. Earlier, former Army Chief General N. C. Vij also expressed dissatisfaction regarding the fact that the army wasn't given its due. So much so, General V. K. Singh is not saying something new — except that he has strongly stood up against the civilian bureaucracy like never before. His predecessors, hence, were never prepared to rock the boat, for whatever reasons. Perhaps, some former military chiefs, who have played along with the government, have been rewarded with governorships or ambassadorships post retirement. The history of corruption in post-Independent India over procurement of military hardware started with the Jeep scandal in 1948. Mr V. K. Krishna Menon, the then-High Commissioner of India in London, signed a deal worth Rs 80 lakh with a foreign firm for jeeps for the Indian Army in Kashmir without following the normal procedure. However, the Nehru government was able to successfully suppress controversy.


In order to perpetuate this culture of secrecy, the Ministry of Defence pursues a zero-information policy, but this only proves counterproductive. Instead, it spurs the Press to unravel as many scandals as possible. Today, the role of the Press, which emphasises reportage on military matters, has helped to highlight the corruption that is at the root of tensions in civil-military relations. According to James Burk, in his article Theories of Democratic Civil Military Relations in the reputed US journal Armed Forces & Society, (2002): “Studies of civil-military relations often rest on a normative assumption that civilian control of the military is preferable to military control of the state. The principal problem they examine, however, is empirical: to explain how civilian control on the military is established and maintained”.

In India, study and research on civil military relations is almost non-existent. Like all political and military traditions that the country inherited from Britain, it was adopted for convenience of governance. This applied in terms of civil-military relations, wherein civilian supremacy was established and also proved useful to swing defence procurement deals, whereby political parties benefited tremendously. The positive argument for civilian supremacy on the military leadership is linked to the fact that the latter possess firepower which entails the tantalising possibility to seize political power. Even General Thimayya and Defence Minister Krishna Menon clashed over promotions and on management of the threat response to China. In this context, Nehru asserted that the ‘supremacy of civilian authority' was non-negotiable, except for the need to accept ‘expert' military advice. The only problem with civilian supremacy regarding the military is that financial powers concentrated in the hands of the political leadership and civilian bureaucracy hampers the defence hardware procurement process. The only way out of such a situation is to alter the equations in civil-military relations, with greater financial powers for the military leadership.

(The author is a Professor at Christ University, Bangalore.)

Published on April 06, 2012
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