The Congress party’s unusual declaration of strike dates it had ordered during its tenure marks a despicable low in the politics of competitive patriotism.
Three days ago the Congress party released a list of six dates on which the Congress-led UPA government apparently conducted “surgical strikes” across the Line of Control (LoC) in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) during its two consecutive tenures that lasted from 2004 to 2014. The Congress party’s unusual declaration of strike dates announced in response to the ruling BJP’s repeated public highlighting of the two cross-LoC retaliatory actions it had ordered during its tenure, marks a despicable low in the politics of competitive patriotism and nationalism started by the BJP during the current election process.
Earlier, the Congress “discovered” the importance of national security by appointing a Task Force for this purpose exactly a week after the 14 February suicide terror attack on CRPF personnel near Pulwama. The “task force”, entrusted to prepare a vision paper for the country’s national security challenges, was high on symbolism. It was headed by Lieutenant General Deependra Singh Hooda, a former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Northern Command, who had overseen the September 2016 cross-LoC retaliatory strikes following the terror attack on an Indian Army Post in Uri. The task force headed by Lt Gen Hooda, who took pains to say he’s not joined the Congress, shed no fresh light or revelation on India’s security concerns. Cosmetic as it was, Lt Gen Hooda with his professional stature became a “political trophy” and the purpose was purely to be seen to be doing something.
Indeed the armed forces, the country’s instrument of last resort that is meant in any democracy to be strictly apolitical and highly professional, are unashamedly being milked by politicians for electoral gains. Using national security as the pretext, the ruling political dispensation has discovered that the armed forces per se and, of course, successful military actions against an adversary, makes for good electoral bait. The concern for the armed forces is, of course, a matter of least priority. The focus instead is to ride piggyback on the brand equity of the armed forces and to project itself (political party) as the “most effective decision maker” and “user of the armed forces”. The BJP tried to project Wing Commander Abhinandan Vardhaman as their “political trophy” to garner support of the electorate which was, mercifully, swiftly opposed by the Election Commission
The discourse has shifted beyond just the September 2016 cross-LoC retaliatory strikes conducted by the Army and the 26 February 2019 cross-LoC airstrikes conducted by the Air Force. Indeed it is the “ownership” of the institution of the soldier, sailor and airman that is now routinely being invoked by the BJP. This became visible last month when Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath went as far as to term the armed forces as “Modiji ki sena” (Modi’s Army) at a rally in Ghaziabad. This remark was subsequently repeated by some other BJP members. The remark caused consternation among a section of retired defence officers, some of whom ended up petitioning the President of India (also the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces) to seek an end to the increasing politicisation of the armed forces by elections-contesting politicians.
This trend is not without grave consequences. In addition to possibly adversely affecting the morale and professionalism of the soldiers, the armed forces are in danger of being politicised, which, in turn, could have a bearing on national security.
Just as political parties have discovered the armed forces to be a vote catcher, sections in the armed forces appear to be taking cues from politicians. The present Army Chief, General Bipin Rawat, who otherwise has a routine professional career, was “deep selected” after superseding two lieutenant generals, who had at least a similar if not better professional profile. While the cause for his selection has been the topic of much speculation in the past, General Rawat, who retires by this year-end, was in the news for the wrong reasons in February 2018 when he publicly expressed concern about the growth of a particular political party in Assam. His remark led former Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi to remark that Service Chiefs should not contest elections for up to five years after retirement so that they did not hobnob with the ruling party towards the end of their service to fulfil political ambitions.
Perhaps Gogoi had General Vijay Kumar Singh in mind. General Singh, who created much public controversy when he sought a date correction to his age during his tenure as Army Chief, had evoked the support of the BJP, then in opposition. He joined the BJP immediately after retiring, successfully contested the Lok Sabha elections and became a Minister of State for External Affairs.
There is nothing new about retired defence officers joining politics. Major Jaswant Singh, Major General B.C. Khanduri, late Squadron Leader Rajesh Pilot and Captain Amarinder Singh are some prominent examples of ex-servicemen becoming professional politicians. But while Amarinder Singh has been non-partisan while speaking for the armed forces and national security, V.K. Singh did little to support the armed forces’ case for One Rank One Pension (OROP) during an agitation by ex-servicemen during the BJP’s tenure, giving rise to the speculation that retired defence officers were increasingly taking to politics for their personal advancement like any other “civilian” politician.
In the last ten days alone, which has been the peak of the ongoing elections, the BJP has added 16 defence officers including five lieutenant generals (two of them former Deputy Army Chiefs and one former Director General, Military Intelligence) and a major general. A month ago a Vice Army Chief, who retired less than a year ago, joined the BJP. All 17 defence officers were officially welcomed by key Cabinet ministers
Retired armed forces’ officers, who while in service profess to how they are a society apart and more virtuous than the people they commit themselves to protecting, must remember that their rank and professional profile remain affixed even after their death, let alone retirement. This involves a need for dignified behaviour, especially in public domain and even more so when they join the murky world of politics.
In his seminal book The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations, published in 1957, noted American academic Samuel Huntington cautions politicians against politicising the military. Warning against a political officer corps, rent with faction and subordinated to ulterior ends, Huntington advises that a professional military must stand aloof from politics. “If they abjure the military spirit, they destroy themselves first and their nation ultimately.”
While there is definitely room for retired defence officers in politics in India, there must never be room for politicised defence officers in service. Also, retired defence officers in politics must also remain a class apart and more virtuous than the run of the mill politicians. How else can they be expected to make a difference?