Nehru and his generals

[Jawaharlal] Nehru’s relationship with the military is still a matter of debate. To many in the military he is singularly responsible for downplaying their contribution to nation-building and thereby denying them a role in polity and the eventual humiliating defeat in 1962. Nehru is therefore a frequent target for vilification by members of India’s strategic community.

More nuanced scholarship on the 1962 war has pushed back against this notion and focused on other factors, including shortcomings within the military. However, even the most ardent of Nehru’s supporters would admit that he had problems engaging, and getting along with, his military commanders.

Nehru appointed General Cariappa as the first Indian Chief of Army Staff, but he was not his first choice. According to some accounts, he had approached General Nathu Singh and then General Rajendrasinhji, both of whom demurred because they were junior to General Cariappa. Nehru’s subsequent relations with General Cariappa and his successor General Rajendrasinhji was known to range from tense and conflict-laden to indifference and mutual incomprehension. The next Chief, General Shrinagesh, had better relations with both political leaders and civilian bureaucrats. Perhaps due to this, he was the first Chief to be appointed as a Governor, first of Assam and then later of Andhra Pradesh.

This set in an unwritten belief – a sentiment that if the Chiefs conduct themselves “appropriately” vis-a-vis civilian authorities then they stood a chance to be rewarded after retirement. In later years this became an important tool, wielded by civilians to incentivise and control the behaviour of senior military officers.

With the next Chief, General Thimayya, Nehru initially had good relations before they fell out over the role of Krishna Menon and BM Kaul. As described earlier, Nehru’s unequivocal support for Krishna Menon during the resignation episode created some bitterness between them. In addition, Nehru’s open support for Lieutenant General BM Kaul, referred to as a “political general” by his critics, further undermined Thimayya. Kaul was later appointed as a Quartermaster General and posted in Delhi – Thimayya was reluctant to post him however was prevailed upon by Krishna Menon.

After Thimayya’s retirement, Kaul was appointed the Chief of General Staff and became the most prominent military adviser – by virtue of his proximity to Nehru and Krishna Menon. Kaul’s career however came to an end when he failed in a spectacular fashion as a Corps Commander during the 1962 war. In a secret assessment written after a visit to the forward area immediately after the war General Richard Hull, the British Chief of General Staff, put the blame entirely on Kaul and argued, “at the crucial time I consider that the Corps Commander failed to exercise proper command.”

Nehru also had an additional consideration, that of dealing with officers who retired at a comparatively young age – Nathu Singh at 51, Cariappa at 53, Thorat and Thimayya at 55 and Rajendrasinhji at 56. In part this was the result of a policy, introduced shortly after independence, of fixed tenures (initially four years but later reduced to three years) for Chiefs of Army Staff and Army Commanders. Nehru insisted upon this policy as he was apprehensive in case senior army officers “got too secure and developed political ambitions.”

“The decision was unfortunate,” according to VK Singh, “as it removed the top leadership of the Indian Army at an age when they had several years of useful life still left, and the Nation could have benefitted from their experience. The rule did not apply to the civil bureaucracy, or to the Navy or the Air Force.” Nehru therefore could have, but largely chose not to, utilise their experience in some sort of an administrative position.

But with the exception of Srinagesh (who was appointed Governor of Assam from 1959-62), he instead sent some of them on assignments outside the country. In appears therefore that Nehru was careful in ensuring that civilian power was unrivalled and discouraged a potentially militaristic “cult of the personality.” His critics could claim though that Nehru thought like a crafty politician – ensuring that a popular military personality did not have a public role.

Despite his efforts, some of them, like Cariappa and Nathu Singh, dabbled in politics and participated in elections – which they both lost. The point remains though that, of all his officials, Nehru had the hardest time in understanding and earning the trust and confidence of his Generals.

However, the wheel would turn full circle after the 1962 debacle as Nehru re-engaged with the Generals that he had metaphorically exiled.

After the war, in order to have a more professional approach to formulating defence policies, the government created a Military Affairs Council. This council would meet frequently and, among others, consisted of Thimayya, Thorat and Rajendra Sinhji. The team that Nehru had previously chosen and certainly favoured – Krishna Menon, Thapar and Kaul, were no longer around. Nehru, an intelligent and thoughtful man, could not have been unaware of the irony of listening to his former Generals, some that he had treated badly, when he all but ignored and slighted them earlier.

The definitive account of Nehru’s relations with his Generals remains to be written, as there are still competing interpretations of this period. However, almost all agree that leading up to the 1962 war, civil-military relations were possibly at their worst. There was an absence of a free and frank dialogue and a “structured gap in communication between the government and the military.”

Instead, favouritism, palace intrigues and conspiracies were rife, with the “After Nehru, Who?” query dominating conversations. Krishna Menon, disparagingly referred to as an “evil genius,” played a central role in these intrigues and he seemed to have an unnatural hold on Nehru. Again, according to the British High Commissioner:

“Mr Nehru himself could stop all this with a word or gesture. He knows, it appears, as much as anyone, about Krishna Menon’s congenital dishonesty and power-hunger. He even has some realisation of the irrational side of Krishna Menon’s behaviour.... But he will not stop it. Thus in an involved way he is becoming an accomplice to a conspiracy against himself, - against his own position and reputation, and against so much that he has done in the past.”

Nehru as a supreme commander

Nehru clearly failed as a wartime commander and the 1962 war has forever tarnished his legacy. Four qualities in particular served Nehru badly in his role as a supreme commander – his style of functioning, lack of attention to detail, distraction with global events and choice of advisers.

As a political leader Nehru was open to a democratic style of functioning, making it a point to communicate even with his rivals. However, in his administrative duties Nehru was not particularly fond of the organised, committee style of functioning. Instead, he favoured quick decisions often made in informal, small group settings without adequate staff work. As a result, important issues were considered ad hoc and many committees, including the Defence Committee of the Cabinet, became moribund or served a perfunctory function and were generally ineffective.

This prevented contrarian perspectives from being aired and encouraged a lazy “group-think” that took its cues from the Prime Minister. One of the most consequential assumptions that emerged from this group-think was the idea that China would not attack India. In a sense, Nehru undid the basis and logic of the committee system that Mountbatten and Ismay had so carefully established.

A related quality of Nehru’s that ill-served him was a lack of attention to detail – an important trait in successful wartime commanders. Nehru assumed that if orders were passed, they would be quickly and efficiently implemented which was not always the case.

For instance, one of the major causes of the Indian Army’s defeat in both the Northern and Eastern sectors was the lack of road communication networks that would have enabled rapid transport of troops and logistical supplies. According to some reports, the Himmatsinghji committee in 1952 had recommended that such roads be rapidly constructed. Funds were allocated from time to time, but progress on this was tardy as different bureaucracies did not understand the urgency.

To his credit, Krishna Menon recognised this as a priority and was instrumental in establishing the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) in 1959. Despite this effort, road building did not improve substantially and inadequate logistical infrastructure contributed to the defeat.

Similarly, Nehru did not pay attention to many other factors including operational deployment and planning, logistics, operational readiness and coordination and instead left all these matters to the respective bureaucracies to sort out. Mountbatten picked up on this quality of Nehru and after what was probably his last meeting advised him, perhaps unwisely in light of Nehru’s aversion to the man, to emulate Churchill: “During the war Winston used to write at the end of a decision “report position in ( ) days” (It was usually 14). By this means he was able to see not only that decisions were being faithfully carried out but that they were being carried out expeditiously.”

Instead Nehru displayed an organisational naiveté wherein he assumed that once orders were passed they would be readily and quickly implemented. A combination of these two qualities – eschewing a formal, committee based, work culture and lack of attention to detail, contributed in large part to his failure as a supreme commander. One diplomatic assessment on the eve of the 1962 criticises Nehru for his lack of urgency and overall administrative skills while describing the “unGovernment” and “strange absence of concentrated authority” in New Delhi. PMS Blackett, who observed Nehru closely, mirrored this assessment when he said, “he was not a good administrator. Rather he was a superb leader, an outstanding leader. But he did not know how to get things done very well.”

In the years leading up to the 1962 war, Nehru was like a colossus on the global stage – consulted by both the super blocs and the wider international community on a variety of issues.

India’s position – on issues arising from decolonisation, deliberations within the United Nations and on regional issues in Indo-China, Lesotho, Congo, in Eastern Europe and the Korean peninsula and elsewhere – was widely sought by diplomats on all sides. Nehru, along with Krishna Menon, was dealing with all these issues and thinking about the wider problems of the atomic age and continued threat of a global war. These engagements frequently took them outside the country – and Nehru’s time and attention were at a premium.

With the benefit of hindsight, Nehru spent too much time and energy on global affairs and neglected paying attention to matters closer to home. By contrast, China’s premier, Chairman Mao, hardly ever stepped out of the country and delegated this function to others, like Zhou Enlai. Tellingly, after this war, China’s diplomatic prestige increased whereas Nehru, and India’s global role, diminished significantly.

Finally, and perhaps most consequentially, Nehru suffered from a fatal flaw in any leader – he chose his advisers badly.

Krishna Menon, Thapar and Kaul were clearly the most important advisers who let him down, but the Director of the Intelligence Bureau, BN Mullick, also came in for some criticism. From a civil-military perspective, Nehru wanted to “rein in the military intelligence services” – perhaps to consolidate civilian control. This had an unintended consequence as the military was unprepared, lacked relevant intelligence inputs and was completely dependent upon Mullick’s assessments. Seemingly in agreement with this line of thinking, according to Vice Admiral Ronald Brockman – who accompanied Mountbatten in his visit to India after the war – Mullick, backed by civilian ministers, had “achieved too much power vis-à-vis the Services.”

One must however resist the temptation to put the entire blame on Nehru, more so because of a number of extenuating circumstances. First, Nehru was handling too many portfolios and was intimately involved with a vast range of issues – economic planning, developmental aid, atomic energy, industrial research and foreign and defence policies, to name a few. The demands on his time had led to a state, according to one assessment, of “permanent fatigue.” As a result, his attention to detail and micro-management of issues was made more difficult.

Second, by the time of the China crisis Nehru was almost 73 years old and suffering from uncertain health. Age and a punishing schedule had taken its toll and was a complete contrast from Nehru’s wartime command during the 1948 Kashmir war. Many who dealt with Nehru before the war noticed his distracted state and surmised that others were running India.

These reports reached Mountbatten who feared that Nehru was “ill and losing his grip at a time when India needs his help and guidance more than ever.” Finally, the debacle of 1962 was a result of strategic, diplomatic, intelligence, military, operational and tactical failures at, more or less, all levels. Nehru could not have foreseen that the Indian Army would collapse as disastrously as it did in the Eastern Theatre, or that his chosen team would let him down so much.

Excerpted with permission from The Absent Dialogue: Politicians, Bureaucrats and the Military in India, Anit Mukherjee, Oxford University Press.