The Indian military is today at the centrestage of national politics for more reasons than one. On one hand, the military is being lauded for the professionally executed surgical strikes across the Line of Control which took place on September 29. On the other, there is simmering discontent in the military and its large veterans’ community with regard to status, pay, pensions and allowances. The irony of the situation is hard to miss. A military put on the nationalism pedestal and eulogised as never before, is unhappy about its remunerations and status! Most importantly and disturbingly, both aspects are being exploited by political parties for politics. Post-surgical strikes, we saw bizarre political posters coming up in Uttar Pradesh allegedly by the ruling party at the Centre. The Opposition struck back by asking for proof of surgical strikes albeit to counter Pakistan’s denial, only to be branded as “anti-national”. Comical allegations and counter-allegations dominated the media for one month.
This tamasha came to a head on November 2 with the suicide of a veteran allegedly for not receiving the “real” One Rank One Pension. Again, the Opposition came out with all guns blazing to berate the government for not giving the soldiers their dues, while riding on their operational performance. Protests, arrests, funeral processions and monetary compensation followed. The government fielded a former Chief of Army Staff and now a junior minister, who passed insensitive remarks on the “mental state” of his former comrade and labeled him a “Congress worker”.
Many analysts interpret this as “politicization” of the apolitical Armed Forces. Presently it is not so, but it certainly is a large stride towards it. Politicisation implies that the armed forces have interests or subscribe to an ideology which converges with political ideology. Our political system has been unable to envisage a genuinely inclusive democratic process delinked from caste-and religion-driven identity politics. The effects of this virulent identity-based political system are to a large measure counterbalanced by the model of secular identity preserved in the armed forces. This sustains the faith of the armed forces in the ideals of the Indian State as enshrined in the Constitution to which they swear an oath of allegiance.
The armed forces have always functioned through impartial rational action determined by military necessity and not by any political ideology or communal sentiments. This is the reason for the armed forces to remain apolitical despite being employed to control communal riots, insurgencies and terrorism. However, the relentless communalisation of politics and ideology-driven governance is causing serious damage. It is beginning to effect the values by means of which the citizen adheres to the State. The State itself is promoting its own brand of nationalism and the patriotism of those questioning it is not only ridiculed but rubbished as anti-national. The armed forces, the instrument of state power, are witnessing it and are clearly at the risk of being affected by the growing mismatch between the ideals they adhere to and the practices they witness. Which is why if the exploitation of armed forces for political purposes is not checked, it will lead to the eventual politicisation of the armed forces.
It is to the credit of the armed forces that they remained aloof during the Emergency (though their silence itself was deafening). However, there have been aberrations which do not augur well for their apolitical status. The Director General of Military Operations was allegedly “tricked” into briefing ideologues of a political party during the Kargil War. Soon thereafter, posters with the photographs of the three Chiefs appeared during elections - which were removed once the Army Chief lodged a protest with the Prime Minister. The directions of the Ministry of Defence for the head count of Muslims in the armed forces struck at the very roots of its secular ethos. The spectacle of personnel organising and participating in ideology-driven mass yoga supposedly under the garb of wellness promotion, spells ominous portents. The association of the armed forces with a political yoga guru for yoga training is also disturbing. More so, when they have their own wellness culture which includes yoga matured over centuries. Politicisation of the forces is a self-defeating exercise in a democracy and political parties who attempt it, do so at their own peril. Once armed forces are politicised they become a law unto themselves.
I laboured on the issue of politicisation of the armed forces because for a democracy that is the biggest danger. However, there is another danger of playing politics with and deifying the armed forces. It stymies reforms with respect to National Security and its most important instrument, the armed forces. Our higher defence management needs radical reforms. The functioning of the National Security Council leaves much to be desired. India does not have a formal National Security Strategy. The Ministry of Defence is not integrated with the three services. The three services are not integrated under a Chief of Defence Staff. The armed forces require major structural and organisational reforms. We do not have a Force Development Strategy based on the National Security Strategy. Barring a few big ticket procurements, the systemic upgradation of the arms and equipment of the armed forces is virtually at a standstill. Most of these reforms are pending for decades. Politicians are busy playing politics with national security and the armed forces to focus on what is required - reforms.
When emotions drive issues related to National Security and the armed forces, reforms are the first casualty. Both National Security and the armed forces become holy cows for politicians, media and the public. The self-righteous arguments generated on primetime discussions on matters military are scary, threatening to instantly dub sane voices including defence analysts as enemies of the nation. It’s a similar situation on social media. I have been on Twitter for seven years, focusing on the reforms relating to National security and the armed forces. In today’s charged atmosphere, I cannot express a view for the betterment of the organisation I served for 40 years, without inviting abuse!
Empirical wisdom is that the armed forces rarely reform themselves from within. It is normally the government, Parliament, media and the public that force reforms. This has been the experience of all modern states. The Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986 which led to radical reforms in the armed forces in the United States Of America, was the result of relentless pressure of the media, the public, and an enlightened Senate.
Sadly all these elements or their equivalents in India, are behaving like “The Six Blind Men of Hindostan” when it comes to National Security and the armed forces. Which is why the soldiers are neither satisfied with what they fight with nor are they satisfied with their status, pay and pensions.
Feature Image Source: PTI