Narendra Modi’s first tenure as Prime Minister of India would not only be known for ‘Scam Free’ governance (hopefully) but also for achieving the near impossible task of Politicising the Indian Military. Independent India’s first Commander-in-Chief categorically asserted that the Military must remain apolitical. This was an absolute truth, but for those times.
The most sensational change that has taken place in our environment is quantum increase in connectivity at all levels, in particular the so-called lower levels, casually termed as labour class. Everyone had a view even 50 years ago but there were no means to convey and connect. Today, nearly one billion Indians are connected. Not long ago, even in the nineties, having a landline connection from MTNL was seen as a status symbol. Process of digitisation, which has been personally overseen by the PM himself, has ensured that virtually every Indian, the entire 1.35 billion, has access to either connect directly or through someone else. Barrier of literacy concept as an impediment to individual growth has been thrown overboard. In the icy and desolate heights of Siachen, the soldier takes a first look of his newborn on the WhatsApp message on the cell phone provided the battery works at minus 50 degrees celsius. Internal simmering within the establishment of Military has been going on for decades. In my assessment, the watershed event which catapulted Indian Military out of self imposed political oblivion was fruitless and insane decision of Military deployment during Operation Parakram in December 2001.
Attack on Parliament was due to incompetence of Delhi police and head strong attitude of parliamentarians, who considered disclosing their identity as an attack on their ‘fiefdom’. Terrorists utilised both these shortcomings and gained access in the Parliament building. Price of their collective incompetence was paid by the poor soldier, who braved two winters in the desolate deserts of Rajasthan. Without doubt it was the proverbial ‘tilting factor’. Military obeyed then and continues to obey even now the dictates of poorly informed and less than literate politicians and bureaucrats on strategic issues (conduct of war in particular), ably and amply supported by the ‘self serving’ intellectuals enjoying the perks and privileges of second carrier at tax payers expense. During Operation Parakram we lost a few hundred able bodied soldiers, specially during the process of laying the mines and then recovering them after 13 months. This was followed by terrorist attacks at Kaluchak and many other places.
It is a mistaken belief that Modi’s announcement of Grant of OROP during a pre-election rally in 2014, with Gen. VK Singh standing right behind him on the dais led to politicisation of the military. Ironic as it might appear, but it is the ‘Non-implementation of full OROP’ that has merely acted as a catalyst and led to politicisation of Military. Veterans have been on Dharna for over thousand days on this issue.
The grouse by veterans against the modalities of implementation of OROP, courtesy the finance Ministry and India’s bureaucrats, is genuine. The finance Minister continues to defend the indefensible. However, I view Dharna by Military Veterans as a‘non-military’ act of gross indiscipline, which has lowered the status of Military in the eyes of civilians, and which has done irreversible damage. As in the past, my views on Dharna will be contested; so be it. We in the Military have reduced ourselves to the level of trade unionists by resorting to Dharna mode of expressing our genuine grievance. We have failed to realise that even so called ‘Free Press’ has completely and totally boycotted and shunned the news about Dharna in audio-visual medium. With all the weapons that Military has, it cannot win the war of perception from semi-literate and rights- conscious Indian society. Even now, it is not too late to call off the Dharna.
The simmering issue that has politicised the Military is non-availability of suitable weapons in adequate numbers. Shortcomings indefence procurement or the lack of it has percolated down to the youngest soldier who is no openly questioning and discussing the irrational policies and knee jerk reactions of the powers that be with respect to weapons procurement. Seamless connectivity has only helped the message to travel far and wide within few seconds merely at the press of a button on one’s smartphone. A young soldier now relates to weaponry used by Israelis and so on.
Politicians from opposition parties have helped the process of politicisation of Military, albeit unintentionally. Whether it was Randeep Surjewala of Congress agreeing to share the dais with Maj Gen. Satbir Singh on the issue of OROP or the ongoing parroting of acquisition of the Rafale fighter jet aircraft. Insanity of Indian Politicians is evident from the fact that now they want numbers of casualties and target destruction details after each military action. Let me be candid; it has nothing to do with a particular political party, but the trend is damaging for national nsecurity. For a large number of politicians, governance issues related to national security have taken a back seat. Insane and irrational members of various political parties are now openly expressing their views on issues such as continuation of AFSPA in disturbed areas, when in fact, most politicians are not even aware of the full form of AFSPA, and even less of its contents. I had first hand experience recently, while on a survey in eastern UP. I asked agitating members of quite a few political parties as to what AFSPA stood for? None could answer. In fact quite a few ‘knowledgable’ human beings said that it was an ‘ARMY ACT’ so that they could trouble the civilians. I merely laughed it off.
AFSPA continuance or otherwise has now found its mention in the pre- election commitment documents termed as manifestoes with fancy names. Congress party has, of course, taken the proverbial ‘cake’ by asking a retired three star General (who apologised on TV for Army action against terrorists/their supporters), to write their national security perspective document. I am extremely happy with Congress admitting that Congress party until now had no document on national security issues. The highest court in the country, too, has not lagged behind in ‘harassing’ the soldier on active duty by castigating the ‘ever faithfuls’ for performing their duty at the risk of personal injury, including death. Provision of mandatory FIR in case of virtually every encounter death is their collective contribution to national security. However, even the learned judges sitting in high domed buildings in air conditioned comfort are loathe to recommend repeal of AFSPA as they did in case of NJAC.
No government till date, including current one, has thought it fit to make provisions for allowing a serving soldier to exercise his/her franchise irrespective of the place of her posting. Is it too complicated to implement? We are experts at ‘reverse engineering’; just lift the provisions from Israel/USA on exercise of franchise, where location does not matter. All political parties must understand that the‘citizen’ in the soldier has woken up. With nearly 2.5 million veterans and 1.5 million serving soldiers, the four million strong, each having at least five members, who will follow his/her dictate/advice, the figure is a staggering 20 million voters. Mathematically it amounts to nearly 35,000 voters in each Lok Sabha constituency.
Unfortunately, the timing of military awareness of its political power might have taken place at an inappropriate time because it has been overshadowed by the OROP issue. Incidentally none of the political party has mentioned anything about OROP in their manifestos. For NDA/BJP, OROP is a non- issue since it has been implemented. But for other parties too OROP is a non-issue. A parliamentarian stated in Lok Sabha that Service Chief must confine themselves to commenting on military issues only. Yet another protégé of an elderly politician called a sitting Service Chief as ‘Goonda’. An illiterate parliamentarian stated that soldiers are in Military for availing cheap/free liquor and CSD canteen facilities. Times have changed, albeit it has taken long.
The fault of keeping Military apolitical lies with senior officers as well. We are no longer in ‘cave-era,’ wherein the elder child believed that his/her sibling was dropped by a stork through the chimney. Let us take example of USA, Israel, UK and erstwhile USSR.
In the United States, more than a dozen Generals have occupied the office of POTUS and other senior appointments viz NSA etc. As on date, they are a prominent force to reckon with in the national politics of the USA. A Lt Col rank officer in the US military challenged the decision of the government in going to war in Vietnam by authoring a book and rose to become a three star General. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Chief of Staff, Lt Gen. Benjamin Gantz, who served as the 20th Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from February 2011 to February 2015, was his chief challenger at the recently held elections in Israel. During the Pershing-2 missile crisis, it was on the advice (read pressure) of senior military officials that the then UK prime minister backed off in spite of having agreed with POTUS. Indeed, even the UK public was supporting the military commander’s decision. During the Cuban missile crisis, popularly known as Bay of Pigs crisis, it was the erstwhile senior Soviet Military officials, who prevailed over Nikita Khrushchev to call it off and remove the SAM-2s.
Above incidents highlight two basic facts; Firstly, senior military officials of these nations have better international understanding, are better qualified and educated and express their views in a fearless manner as long as it was in the interest of national security. Secondly, Generals of these countries make a clear distinction between disagreement/ disobedience/disloyalty. In India ‘Disagreement’ is synonymous with Disobedience/Disloyalty, not only in the Military but in the political/civilian environment as well. Unceremonious removal of Maj Gen. BC Khanduri as the head of the Parliamentary Committee tasked to look into defence expenditure/preparedness is a case in point. Notwithstanding the limitations, Indian Military has reached the point of inflexion and is slowly but surely becoming a politically alive entity. I have no doubts that it would be in the larger interests of both the Nation as well as Military in the long run. I sincerely hope that the astute soldier will exercise her/his franchise rationally, keeping national security as paramount issue and become part of political lineage of our great nation. In the political arena emotions and personal issues must not be allowed to govern our decision because if that happens, we would be no better than a banana republic.
Gp Capt TP Srivastava has served for over three decades with the IAF, flying the MiG-21 and MiG-29. He has authored a book titled “Profligate Governance: Implications for National Security” dealing with national and international affairs, specific military affairs, geo-strategic scenario etc. He is currently based in the NCR and writes extensively on defence and security related issues