A military coup failed to topple the elected government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey on July 15. Earlier in the week, posters came out across Pakistan inviting the country's army led by General Raheel Sharif to take over the reins of power. Speculation was rife whether Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would face the second ouster from office after 1999. [Coup attempt failed in Turkey: Can something similar succeed in Pakistan today?]
Military coups are nothing new in countries of Asia, Africa and Central and Latin American countries---most or all of which are developing or backward.
However, India is one of those rare countries in the developing world which has never witnessed a military coup. The only blemish in its impressive record as a democracy was the Emergency of 1975-77 but there was no single instance of the men in uniform toppling an elected government---something which several of its neighbours have experienced.
Is there any particular reason why India did never face a military coup?
Inheritance of the Anglo-Saxon tradition of civilian authority over military
To begin with a softer reason---the British who had colonised India had introduced the Anglo-Saxon pattern of the civilian authority over the military which meant the military would remain neutral in matters of politics.
It was said that the inheritance of centuries-old British tradition had disciplined the Indian Army in such a way that it never thought of interfering into the political sphere. But this reason is rather soft because Pakistan, too, had inherited the same tradition but saw its military subverting the political system a number of times and dominating it.
In fact, Pakistan after the Partition had inherited the Army as the most effective institution which during the British era was dominated by components from the undivided Punjab province and it ultimately prevailed over other institutions that remained fragile and never met the expectations after the early death of Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
India's army is too big and diversified to put up a united leadership to stage a coup
The second and may be the most profound reason why India never met a military coup was the diversity of its army components. The army in India has been too huge and diversified to put up a united leadership to stage a successful coup.
Just as the political leadership in India has mastered the skill of building social coalition to win electoral battles, the army never had the opportunity to build a unified social force to carry out a nationwide coup. The unique diversity in India has been its best defence in this regard.
The legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru
The third major reason why India never had to experience a military coup is the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru. In a number of Afro-Asian countries, the founders of the post-independence nation could not resist the temptation to turn dictators and it eventually saw the army's entry into the political scene to clean up the mess created by the politicians.
Nehru, like a true democrat, had never harboured any ambition to turn the nascent democracy in India into a machinery to meet his personal gains. A man who was not even in favour of maintaining an army, Nehru felt the need to rethink the army's role in the independent India and made an effort to keep the armed forces permanently subordinated to the political leadership.
Some of the steps that were taken with regard to the army in independent India to reduce its significance in political process were:
- The Teen Murti House, which had traditionally been the grad residence of the army chief, was given to the prime minister.
- Reducing the army officer's big salaries that they drew during the British era.
- When India's first army chief Field Marshal Cariappa had publicly criticised the government over its economic performance, he was reprimanded and told not to show concern over matters that were unrelated to him. The army in India is known for its little display in public life and chips in only when summoned by the political leadership at times of calamity.
- The Commander-in-Chief, who was the second-most important person in the hierarchy after the Viceroy in the pre-independent India, was excluded from the Cabinet in independent India and even the post was abolished. There was no overall commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the defence minister, a civilian leader, came to preside over the heads of the three armed forces---hence making the structure in favour of the civilian dominance.
- Focusing on promotions in the army, creating a counter force in the para-military and rewarding retired chiefs of staff as ambassadors to faraway countries have been other measures to ensure that the Indian Army remained coup proof.
It is not that the Indian military personnel do not have grievances in their ranks but it goes to Nehru's credit that the army was ring-fenced so that India did not meet an experience similar to several of the developing nations of the world.
When reports about a "coup attempt" in New Delhi made the rounds in 2012, it was simply ignored by several quarters. Such is our belief that no military coup can ever be staged in India. It's an achievement of our democracy and we must be proud about it.