The decision by former Army Chief General J.J. Singh to contest the forthcoming Punjab elections as an Akali Dal candidate has elicited considerable comment in the public domain. Some have welcomed the participation of senior ‘faujis’ in Indian politics, while others have not taken kindly to a former service Chief entering the electoral fray for a state legislative seat – meaning that of an MLA!
The debate itself ended inconclusively, for it was not clear if rank was the only criterion, meaning that a Lt Gen. (and equivalent) and below could participate but not a four-star Chief; or that while becoming an MP at the centre was kosher – a state MLA was not quite OK; and even to become an MP, direct nomination to the Rajya Sabha was the preferred option for the fauji, as opposed to the heat and dust of Lok Sabha electioneering where large sums of money and sectarian advocacy are critical elements.
It may be useful to recall that there is no universal gold standard about how a military person – while in service or retired, should relate to the political dynamic of the democracy in question. Each major democracy has evolved its own pattern and the U.S.A. and France elected Generals – Eisenhower and DeGaulle respectively, to lead their nations. History plays a major role in defining the contemporary co-relation between the political dynamic and the soldier and thus one may conjecture that it is unlikely that Germany and Japan will elect a military veteran anytime soon to lead their country.
The Indian experience is distinctive for a variety of reasons. Traditionally the Indian fauj has kept aloof from any kind of political activity, including that which is permissible as per the constitution – and during my four decades in uniform, I do not recall any significant attempt by serving personnel to even cast a postal ballot.The old adage that three subjects were taboo in the officers mess – and politics was one of them – was strictly adhered to(The other two subjects were religion and women).
But should a retired fauji who becomes a civilian have the right to participate in elections – like any other citizen? The answer is ‘yes’ and there is precedent across the rank spectrum. It merits recall that well after retiring, General Cariappa, the first Indian officer to be elevated to Army Chief, contested the Lok Sabha elections as an independent in 1971. He lost.
Over the years some faujis left the military at relatively junior ranks and acquitted themselves with aplomb in politics and both Maj. Jaswant Singh (BJP) and Sqn Ldr Rajesh Pilot (Congress) are case in point. There are others like Maj. Gen. Khanduri (BJP) who served both as a cabinet minister at the centre and as a state Chief Minister. Gen. V.K. Singh, currently a Minister of State in the Modi government, is the most recent example of a former Chief in politics.
Thus, there is no single criterion to define the red lines, as it were, about how the retired fauji is to enter the political fray. But what is discernible is the increased participation of the retired fauji in Indian politics, and the kind of support extended by some exservicemen groups to major political parties is illustrative of this trend. One faction of ex-servicemen had vociferously supported the BJP in the last general election in 2014, in the fond hope that it would resolve many outstanding issues related to the fauji – such as OROP – but they have been disappointed.
If social media is an indicator, the debate among the faujis remains spirited about the merits and de-merits of the Congress and the BJP and who is more committed to the cause of the fauj. Words such as bhakts, sikular stooges and presstitutes has become part of the veteran lexicon and this is the beginning of the politicisation of the Indian fauj. TV debates on matters military have become partisan, emotive and shrill and some veterans have little hesitation in donning party colours.
It is interesting that in the Punjab election, two faujis are pitted against each other – one a former princely ruler, Capt. Amarinder Singh, and the other a former Chief – Gen. J.J. Singh. What will be relevant is to note how they will conduct themselves – once elected – in the pursuit of the national interest – the lodestar of the military. Or will they become victims at the political altar, wherein party interest and loyalty to The Leader becomes paramount – even if it is detrimental to the national interest?
The politics-soldier domain is opaque but the Indian fauj is gradually acquiring a political sheen whose long term impact may be detrimental to the apolitical orientation of the institution, which has stood it in good stead for the last seven decades. Is this a constructive cusp? I have my doubts.
Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, is currently Director, Society for Policy Studies (SPS), New Delhi. He was previously Director, National Maritime Foundation (NMF) and prior to that he headed the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).