Wednesday, November 12, 2008

MILITARY, BUREAUCRACY AND POLITICAL LEADERSHIP: LESSONS FROM THE US

The US Presidential elections have thrown up a couple of significant aspects of governance and leadership that have escaped the attention of almost all in India. Whether that miss is deliberate or is indicative of the levels of ignorance of and indifference to certain core values and structures that go into making a nation great is something that needs to be debated.

What do John McCain, Joe Biden and Sarah Palin have in common? All of them have children serving in the US military, and are proud of it. Even more significantly, they have not 'protected' their children by getting them cushy appointments within the US. They all are either serving in war zones or are going to do so soon. Barack Obama's daughters are still too young to enlist.

What is the scene in India? Kids of Indian politicians can be found shooting to death bar tenders who refuse to serve them drinks after a bar has closed, raping minor foreign tourists, murdering good guys who are friendly to their sisters, and generally throwing their weight around in a most vulgar and obnoxious manner. Those who are slightly more civilised simply rush to the West at the first available opportunity to enjoy the good life there at dad's often ill-gotten expense. Then, having 'learnt' everything about India that needs to be learnt there, they return to claim their dynastic political right! What about joining the military and fighting militants in Kashmir or Pakistanis in Siachen glacier? That terribly hard and risky job is not for them, they will say. India's security is best served by an invisible-to-them military powered those who can't get a better job, not by kids of those who may at one time lead it as commanders in chief.

What was common to all the four candidates during the US Presidential election? All of them spoke repeatedly, with great pride and concern, about the Americans who were serving in the military to protect and keep their country safe. All of them also spoke time and again about the sacred national duty of taking care of not just those serving in the military but also of veterans who have returned to civil life. As leaders of the nation, all of them stressed the importance of talking directly to their military commanders and taking their professional opinions about the strategies to be adopted by the nation to tackle security situations all over the globe.

What is the scenario in India? Most politicians cannot be found anywhere near the military or having even a remote link with it. In fact, they seem to think that the military is an 'alien' organisation that has just to be tolerated and not engaged with, understood or respected, except farcically. As a result, they have delegated the unpleasant task of 'interacting with' and even 'commanding' the military to self-serving generalist career bureaucrats who have no responsibility or accountability at all.

India's military has been engaged in counter insurgency in the North East and Kashmir for decades. But, no Prime Minister or shadow Prime Minister or any leading politician has ever sought the professional and apolitical advice or opinion of any military commander leading operations there. Everything that the political leadership hears or reads is filtered by bureaucrats whose singular objective is to ensure that the anachronistic colonial arrangement that makes them the real rulers of India, even though they have no constituency or command, is not disturbed, no matter what the damage to the nation. That is why, under the pretext of 'civilian supremacy' which really means the supremacy of the political leadership, they have literally hijacked the Ministry of Defence which for them is little more than a multi-billion dollar cow that they cannot let go. That is also probably why the government has stumbled incoherently from disaster to disaster in tackling the grave internal security situation.

America does not have a Military Advisor in uniform and a separate Defence Advisor who is a civil servant. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a four star general, is the one single advisor. That is because America's politicians understand and engage with the military directly. That is way it has been throughout history and that is the way it should be. But, for inexplicable reasons, India's politicians are 'afraid' to talk to their generals. And its bureaucrats keep talking of a 19th century colonial arrangement completely corrupted by them. That is not the way to prevent a coup!

Can a career civil servant in the US come on national television and say that a secretary level career civil servant deserves a salary that is 1000 times that of the President? (It must be clarified here that in the US, the words 'Secretary', 'Assistant Secretary' etc refer to ministers and ministers of state etc and not career bureaucrats.) That is precisely what TSR Subaramanium, a former Cabinet Secretary, said in a TV discussion on the recommendations of the Sixth Pay Commission a few months back. It is surprising that no one in the country took him on and drove home the point that generalist career babus at those levels are an anachronism and are completely replaceable. And that the government will become responsive and efficient only if it is drastically downsized and civil servants at levels of Joint Secretary and above are replaced by a lean and mean team of professionals driven to deliver and leave when the government changes.

America is the richest and most powerful nation in the world. Does it have an 'elite' colonial civil service like India does? Not at all. In fact its small permanent civil service does not figure anywhere in the top hierarchy of the federal government in Washington, like it does here. The President chooses the best available professionals to run the administration at the highest levels on being elected to office. He hires as many as 7000 individuals for the purpose and is not saddled with a large, permanent and decadent bureaucracy that has its own dysfunctional cadre-protection agenda and is powerful enough, due to its permanency, to stall any changes that do not serve its interests.

That is the main reason why things usually move in the US as they should, and remain stuck for years in India. That is why Obama has a fair chance of delivering his promise of change in the US, while an 'Indian Obama' will most likely be rendered almost completely impotent.

India does not need just an Obama to turn things around and pull the country out of the mess that it finds itself in. India also needs a complete overhaul of the administrative machinery and a total attitudinal re-orientation of its entire political leadership. All the candidates in the US Presidential elections drove home the point that they were in the fray to lead their great nation to even greater glory. In India, on the other hand, most politicians continue to display an unbridled hunger for power for the intoxication and wealth it provides. That flows from a colonial mindset that aims to rule, not lead.

During the US elections, Joe Biden said something very important about American politicians. He said that early on in his political career, he had come to realise that while the judgment of a US Congressman could be questioned, his intention could not be. That about sums up the huge chasm of trust that India's politicians have to cross before they can morally claim to be the real leaders of a billion people.
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Readers may also read:
1. 1000 times President's salary for India's babus
2. Corrupt, colonial India faces volcano
3. Terror and national security: the failure of intelligence