The legal assault of the Army chief on the ministry of defence is set to keep national attention affixed for a while. Partisans of both sides of the case, backed by vested interests, will chip in to enliven prime time. What is likely to be missed in the debate is the meaning of the chief's action for military ethics.

The chief's stand indicates his valuing of 'integrity and honour' and his determination. These two character traits are highly laudable in military men. However, the chief is not just another military man. He is a general officer and head of the army. A chief has certain responsibilities that necessitate characteristics over and above those in other military men. In fact, these traits otherwise praiseworthy need being leavened by others that enable shouldering of responsibilities that go with the rank and appointment. Judgment, in particular, is key.

For illustration, while the generals in the First World War exhibited great steadfastness in steadying the frontline in the trenches, they ended up sending a generation to its death. No wonder, they are known to military history as 'donkeys'. Candidates for promotion to higher rank must not only have resolve but also exhibit judgment; else firmness ends up as dogmatism. In the present case whether the chief has exhibited judgment is at issue.

The present case has potential to get dirtier. The problem now is that the Chief has taken on the ministry instead.

 •  Government versus military
 •  Hail to the Chief
 •  Army's right to its opinion

His unprecedented action, redolent with moral courage, is unexceptionable on the surface. He has taken legal recourse, as is his right, to protect his 'honour and integrity'. However, the best measure of judgment happens to be sense of timing. He had occasions twice over in the past to take an equally legitimate position, while coming up for consideration for appointment as corps commander and army commander. At those junctures, he had the military hierarchy to take on. He chose not to do so and instead was 'pressurised' into sending in the letters in which he accepted the wrong date of birth to be communicated to the ministry.

Had he taken a firm position then, his sense of honour would not have been trifled with. Now, he had the opportunity of either resigning or waiting to retire before taking the action.

Additionally, the credibility of his citing of 'honour and integrity' has been diminished by the earlier punishment by courts martial of two generals in the Sukhna land scam case. This has been presented as his high minded anti-corruption stance to clean up the stables. It turns out that the Military Secretary who faced courts martial for influencing the general in command in Sukhna was the one instrumental in holding up his case for amending his date of birth with the Military Secretary's branch, no doubt at the behest of the then chief. The case can now be re-read as personal vendetta.

[To recall, the case was of a No Objection Certificate to construct a school on land adjacent to a cantonment. While the NOC was apparently obtained by pulls and pressures, it does seem to be an over reaction since the land did not belong to the army in first place, but happened to be a tea garden.]

The present case has potential to get dirtier. The problem now is that he has taken on the ministry instead. Since the military is steeped in a 'command' culture, he represents the service. His position requires him to perform both a representative function and an advisory function. This constricts the personal domain, making the chief's action consequential for civil-military relations. His is therefore a challenge to civil control, critical in a democracy. He neglects a principle in democratic civil-military relations: civilian masters have the right to be wrong.

Veterans with a bone to pick with what they consider as a usurpation of civil control by the bureaucrats by insertion of an intervening bureaucratic layer between the military and its political masters will make this a bureaucrat versus brass case, and one of national security. The veteran community, that universally has a pronounced preference for social and political conservatism, can end up unwittingly as vanguard for cornering the government, backed by cultural nationalists embedded in the strategic community. In a season of electiobs, with implications for the national direction not too far distant in time, the political opposition will gain a stick.

The first shots have already been fired - with insinuations that the army's demand for a mountain strike corps has been held up due to bureaucratic games. The idea of this corps is part of the Army chief's major 'Transformation' initiative; it entails Rs.60,000 crores in expenditure on expanding the army by 86,000 troops, including 12,000 officers. The allegation made now is that the ministry is responsible for 'going slow' on this, while there is relative smooth sailing for the projects of the air force and navy.

This is damaging for the government, that requires contending with the effects of a global slowdown as well. The figure of 8 to 9 per cent growth having been revised downwards, knock-on effects on the defence budget can be expected. The military has built up a new 'two-front' threat perception to justify the expenditure. The government will be shown up as 'soft' on defence, if it does not accede to the expenditure demands of the military. Other measures to mitigate the threat - such as arriving at a joint border management mechanism with China, as undertaken in the recent talks - get lost in the cacophony.

The case is therefore only seemingly one of an individual's besmirched honour. It is instead one in civil-military relations. Drastic, and eminently avoidable, precedent is available to the government for guiding its action. The last time such a challenge occurred, in Admiral Bhagwat challenging the government's right to appoint a deputy chief of its choice, he was sacked. This time the chief is in effect asking to continue for ten months longer; something that in the government's domain to decide on.

Clearly, a government cannot be comfortable with a litigious chief for longer than necessary. Yet, for the sake of keeping civil-military relations on even keel, it has to compensate for lack of judgment on his part by displaying maturity. One option is to make a distinction between the rank of general and appointment of army chief. The government can appoint a chief of its choosing, as is it's prerogative. The general can then serve out his tenure as a general without an army, even as the new chief navigates the army beyond eddies.

But more importantly, measures to streamline civil-military relations need be taken. There is little doubt that the perception of a bureaucratic substitution of political control has led the chief to go the distance he has. The general impression in the military that it is 'outside the loop' on policy making, and this needs to be dispelled by co-opting the military into decision making through appropriate institutional arrangements. The military for its part must develop a collegiate command culture. This is one good purpose that can be served by the otherwise unsavoury case unfolding on prime time.