India Abroad

The Good News

Civil-military disputes may be unseemly and potentially perilous to democracy, but Indians should welcome the feud between Indian army Chief General V K Singh and the Manmohan Singh government.

With India no longer in danger of a military coup, the disagreement is an important—albeit costly—test of policy and institutional efficacy in an area of governance that is normally hidden from public view, often in the name of secrecy.

The seeming scandal bolsters the twin requirements of any national security system: Verifying the principle of civilian control over the armed forces even as it brings scrutiny to the mechanism of providing for defense.

The classic model of civil-military relations is absolutist: Civilian leaders have a right to be wrong, but failure is their burden to bear alone. In practice, however, civil-military relations have always been a two-way street.

Military officers, by virtue of their expertise and avowed apolitical character, can and do appeal directly to the people over the heads of their political masters. Political leaders, in turn, often leave the management of defense to professional military officers, both to avoid hard decisions about a subject matter rife with uncertainty and to shift the responsibility if things go badly.

Consequently, most civil-military disputes follow a similar script: The military leader accuses the politician of sacrificing the country’s security, sometimes with charges of corruption, and the political leader accuses the general of breaching rules that undermine the oath to serve and protect.

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