Tuesday, 30 November 2010

The military, the media and the MoD


A veneer of civility: the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister with the three service chiefs at the combined commanders' conference earlier this year.

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 30th Nov 10

If the military’s response to the battering it has taken from a series of scams and scandals, which has been to stand about looking dazed, is any indicator of how it will behave in combat, let’s not go to war. In case after recent case — e.g. the Sukhna land use allegations; the CAG’s observations about troops being supplied outdated rations; the fake encounter in Machil, J&K; and the Adarsh housing society scam — the media has bombarded the military with a dizzying barrage of fact and fiction, while the defence PR machinery has done nothing to limit the damage.

Disempowered by the generals and ignored by the media, the PR managers are mere spectators. In their place, top generals walk out to bat on this crumbling wicket and find themselves predictably bowled. On Saturday, the IAF boss, Air Chief Marshal P V Naik, while visiting the National Defence Academy Kharakvasala, responded thus to media interrogation on the Adarsh Society: “My message is not to get too influenced by these things. Only 1 per cent of the people are involved.”

This is not just statistical naiveté; 1 per cent of a military that has 1.8 million persons would add up to 18,000 corrupt people. More worryingly, it highlights the top brass’ apparent belief that they can simply brush off the growing public suspicion that venality is pervading the top levels of military command.

But there is a deeper structural reason behind the military’s abject surrender of a reputation for honesty that has been won over generations: the troubled relationship between the military and the Ministry of Defence (MoD). With the latter having arrogated to itself complete control over the military’s public relations, the MoD cell that handles the forces’ public interface focuses not on the military’s image, but on Defence Minister Antony’s. Headed by a competent joint secretary rank officer, with representatives from each of the three services, the MoD’s PR office has not, even in the face of the current media assault, masterminded any attempt to limit the damage or to shore up the military’s public image.

It would be shocking to suggest that the MoD deliberately undermines the military’s image. Nevertheless, the recent crises have illustrated that the MoD’s PR office does not advise or work with the generals in managing or limiting media-inflicted damage. This was most evident at the height of the Sukhna land use investigation, when the MoD’s PR machinery was assiduously relaying details of Mr Antony’s squeeze on the Army Chief, General Deepak Kapoor, even as the latter appeared to be oblivious to the built-up media pressure.

So why, the intelligent reader would query, does the military not get around to managing its own image? The answer: the army tried, but was shot down. Early this decade, the Army Liaison Cell (ALC) was created as an interface with the media, but the MoD quickly emasculated that body, circumscribing its role to render it incapable of managing day-to-day media relations, far less conceiving and implementing a sustained image-building programme. The air force and the navy quickly got the message and decided against setting up parallel structures.

Watchers of the Indian military will recognise a historical continuity in the MoD’s curbing of the ALC. India’s pre-Independence equilibrium between the viceroyalty, colonial bureaucracy and the military was transformed in 1947 into unmistakable domination by the newly-born “freedom-fighter” polity, which used the bureaucratic instrument to exercise a stranglehold over the military. This political-bureaucratic alliance has instinctively quashed the ALC, which it views as the army’s unacceptable attempt to assert jurisdiction over the crucial realm of public relations.

If the three chiefs were really intent on safeguarding the interests of the army, navy and the air force, they would jointly demand from Mr Antony the right for India’s most respected public institution to manage its own image, rather than reserving their combined advocacy for issues relating to remuneration and inter-se parity with the bureaucracy. Renewing in the public mind the Indian soldier’s traditional associations of izzat (respect) and imandari (honesty) would far better serve the jawan than a few hundred rupees.

For this to happen, the military needs to accept and internalise that the new activism of the Indian media is indeed corroding its public image. The services must develop a more sophisticated understanding of media functioning, which can only come from working within the media for sufficient periods. But “embedding” future PR officers within the media, perhaps for one-year or two-year secondments, has not even been considered by the military, far less the painful process of pushing such revolutionary ideas through an unwilling bureaucracy. Despite the enterprise and ingenuity of the average army colonel (full disclosure: I was one such!), the army’s PROs who are pushed into the ALC for two-year tenures struggle to adapt to an unfamiliar and hostile environment rather than successfully fashioning the military’s image.

It seems likely that — given eroding societal and public mores and increased activism of the Indian media (leaving aside for later a discussion of the media’s own mores) — the military will face a growing clamour of allegations of wrongdoing, many of them founded on truth. With the MoD’s current PR set-up, oriented towards the ministry rather than the military, the absence of military PR structures could cause painful and avoidable damage at the hands of media kangaroo courts.

This is not to suggest that many of the recent allegations against the military are baseless or motivated. What is needed is to recognise the malaise and to counter it effectively, not pretend that the issue is so insignificant that it will melt away by itself. Despite the evident decline on the battlements, the foundations of the military remain strong. It is this message that a new breed of PR managers must effectively convey.

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hi Ajai,
Your article brings out some good points but the fact of the matter is that it is not the MOD, but the generals who are now under the suspicion of corruption. How can any one defend these corrupt high ranking officers when scams comes one after the other. Antony as usual keeps his image high and he has every right to do so, as he is not a party in any of the corruption. Hopefully these hard times will pass for the armed forces and they will come out brighter and stronger.

DELTA said...

I find it funny that the Air Chief wear's his ID.

Broadsword said...

Anonymous 08:28:

I clearly state in the article that I am not defending any of the officers against whom corruption charges have been levelled.

What the article says is that charges like the current ones are going to increase in number. And, therefore, the military needs to set up a strong PR organisation so that its image is not irretrievably besmirched by a section of wrongdoers.

AK said...

These scams look like a pittance in front of massive grafts like CWG and 2G scandal. Still two wrongs don't make a right!

I have seriously doubted the ability of our military high command to act as effective leaders. Most of the people who reach the top are because of their proximity to some politician or political party. There is also a very strong regional bias that goes on in the selection of the chief. Just check the profile of our recent chiefs and you will find that they are from the states belonging to the President, PM or Defence Minister. This automatically means they are weak and subservient to the uber corrupt political class of India. Most bold officers are shown the door much before they reach the echelons of power.

It is no secret that our soldiers die in Kashmir because of the weak and ineffective military leadership. For decades our soldiers went to fight against the terrorist without proper gear and weapons. India's military chiefs don't have the balls to speak up to their political masters and demand for their men's welfare. After all, the promise of a cushy post retirement governership is more important than saving the lives of soldiers.

Prasun K. Sengupta said...

To Broadsword: "It would be shocking to suggest that the MoD deliberately undermines the military’s image."

What's so shocking, when that's the gospel truth! I've seen it with my own eyes since the late 1980s everytime a civilian from the civil service cadre comes face to face with a serving armed forces official. The civil service personnel have always suffered from an inferiority complex because they are not career specialists unlike their armed forces counterparts--today they may be attached to the MoD for a fixed tenure, following which they will be transferred to another department. Consequently, no matter how hard one tries, the MoD-based civil servant's loyalty is NOT to the MoD or the armed forces, but to his/her respective civil service cadre. That's the obvious commonsensical reality!!!

Burhanuddin said...

insightful article.
keep it up
keep writing!

Anonymous said...

Thank God the MoD spiked the PR cell. It is difficult to defend the indefensible, and no amount of spin doctoring can white wash the fact that the events have occurred. the perception is that these are the ones that have been exposed? What lies beneath?? Complacency on the issue has taken off the sheen of the Uniform.
You may agree with me or not, but this has occurred due to the VIP culture that has permeated each and every echelon of this organisation. Once upon a time, we had a Sam Bahadur. Today, we have VIP suites, different dining areas, and places segregated as per rank. Being PMC and mess secretary are what every career minded officer looks ahead to, and how well the ladies club meetings are organised.
The rot has been steadily spreading. take a look at the awards.Except the gallantry awards, so many of them are either Delhi-centric, or gravitating towards staff officers and the like. There is nepotism alive and kicking, though in a different form. The Colonel sahab knows it well-or doesn't he?

MRUGEN said...

Hello Ajai Sir,
I am happy that you brought a very vital topic out of the closed closet of MOD. I firmly believe that an institution like Army or Armed Forces in general when are trusted to protect the integrity,sovereignity of this country are not trusted to run PR Dept. of their very own force, which is quite disturbing & irritating.

I must state that bureaucracy especially mendling Babus(IAS or other all india services ) should be kept out of the MOD and as such defence related issues be handled by Defence personnel themselves (Army officer's have enough management knowledge to run a Govt. Dept. after all), as they are in better position to understand the implications of decisions happening behind the closed doors than some Babu coming out of know-where( to be precise never had the opportunity to serve as a soldier).

Even the Supreme Court recently hammered with it's Legal language a secretary in MOD , which clearly enforces my stated view.

Image to the Armed Forces matters more than anything else(Even Bucks!) as I have seen close friends of mine choosing Armed Forces as careers even though they had Plum opportunities in civil world.

I appreciate your concern that you intend to bring out through this article & would like to have more such insights in future.

yogi said...

Ataboy!! Right of target as usual but up against deaf-dump-and-incompetent!!!

Anonymous said...

AK,

The current chief's are from Rajastan and Maharashtra and they are not from PM's or DM's state and president has no power in any of these appointments. Their reputation and seniority has made them chief and not political nepotism. Please don't make allegation against these high ranking officers without any proof.

Anonymous said...

Ajai sir You are making a mountain out of a mole hill

Financial or monetary Corruption is a global phenomenon

It cannot be prevented .You can ONLY punish the guilty ASAP if you want to fight corruption.

The public at large , and I can say that bcos I am a civilian gets more upset when the following things happen

1. Blatant Human rights violations like rape and SHOOTING innocent people for medals.

2. Spying cases

3. False cases on officers like
Samba spy case and Brigadier Devinder Singh

4 Sexual harrassment of Lady personnel

These things matter a lot to we civilians because it is a breach of trust

AK said...

anon @ 30 November 2010 22:47

You are free to believe in whatever you like to. I still stick to my belief. India's armed forces are just pawns in the hand of the corrupt babu-politician nexus and will remain so till the time we get stronger military leaders.

brown_panda said...

I have to apologize for my comments in one of your previous articles. I didn't know that you were really a colonel in our army. I must say in my defense, I haven't been following your work for long.

With that out of our way, isn't the army's PR incompetence/dilemma a reflection of the state of affairs in our country. No one in power is accountable to anybody, least of all the common man. The ministers in our country really don't about what people think about them. A friend recently pointed out to me, that in Britain the PM himself came out to explain to the people, what went wrong when an officer died Afghanistan because of lack of resources. Ministers in our government would never deign to respond directly to the people's concerns. That only happens once in 5 years, like some sort of grotesque kumbh mela. At least the netas have the need to get elected. What kind of compulsion do our military chiefs have?

On a more disturbing note, when the Brits took India by crushing the Marathas, or when Babur and Ahmed Shah rampaged across India, they didn't do so on the back of vastly superior weaponry. They succeeded because what passed for our armed forces then, were essentially corrupt organizations that didn't care.

I hope it wont be said of our rulers that "Hamare sarkar ka iqbal mar gaya hai"