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Posted at: Mar 12, 2018, 12:47 AM; last updated: Mar 12, 2018, 4:41 PM (IST)

A revolt of the Generals?

A recent statement of the Army Chief and the views of his generals taken together indicate an unease with the political forces causing distress in society, and an apprehension of the military's growing proximity to such forces.
A revolt of the Generals?
Army Chief General Bipin Rawat after the guard of honour at South Block in New Delhi. PTI

Ali Ahmed
Blogger on strategic issues 

AN editorial in The Tribune ('Generals speaking', March 2) has it that there is dissension in the ranks. The editorial follows two generals who, while speaking at a seminar in Panjab University, Chandigarh, seemingly contradicted earlier utterances of their Chief. Recounting recent forays by the Army Chief into political territory, the editorial concludes that the generals, including the Army Chief, should drive in their respective lanes.

At the Chandigarh seminar, the head of the Army's Western Command said that the idea of a two-front war is not 'smart'. Recall, a 'two and a half front war' was the Chief's innovative formulation last year, referring to a collusive threat from China and Pakistan, alongside a domestic 'half front' unsettled, presumably by a Maoist-jihadist insurrection. 

The second general, its training command head, called out the lack of traction of the political track with Pakistan, even though the Line of Control (LoC) has been activated with artillery crunches, resulting in deaths and displacement on both sides. The Chief is part-owner of the policy reversal of ceasefire on the LoC, having under his belt the proto-surgical strike in cross-border raids on the Myanmar border that were then grafted on to the LoC. Predictably, escalation resulted and with little prospect of a negotiated return to the pre-existing ceasefire.

Both generals have a point. They are mindful, perhaps, that with the defence budget this year reaching its lowest level since the 1962 war in terms of percentage, it would be prudent for India to cut its coat according to the cloth on hand.

A textual view is that the two are drawing attention to the advantages of strategic prudence. Since there can always be two views on strategic matters, their querying the Chief's perspective is unexceptionable. A professional diversity of opinion such as this must enliven Army commanders' conference, enabling robust policy input from the Army's side. 

However, strategic debate apart, can a subtextual view be taken of their remarks, one perhaps unintended by the two, but one informed by the subtext of their remarks? 

The two army commanders were speaking at a seminar on Pakistan. Drawing analogy from Pakistan's case, the training command head had this to say, "This (Pakistani praetorianism) is in stark contrast to India where the armed forces owe allegiance to the Constitution, and not to any party, person or religion (italics added)."

Normally, there would be no need to give voice to this homily. The distinction between India and Pakistan would appear to be self-evident. However, the times are changing. A cautionary word that Indian politics is headed the way of Pakistan is not infrequently heard. 

The training command head said as much, likening Pakistan to a mirror on the wall, which India needs to look at so as not to "make the same mistakes, particularly in light of growing radicalisation and intolerance within our own society over mundane issues."

The two statements together indicate an unease with the political forces causing distress in society, and an apprehension of the military's growing proximity to such forces. 

The seeming proximity is seen in the Army Chief's utterances. His latest remarks in the context of elections in three north-eastern states drew attention to the threat of illegal immigration. At the start of the ongoing run-up to the Karnataka elections, the Chief went down to Coorg and pitched for the Bharat Ratna for a son-of-the-soil, Field Marshal Cariappa. Rawat's positions have constantly been at odds with one of the two coalition partners in J&K, where the Army is the protagonist.  

It is increasingly evident that the Army Chief's remarks are aligned with the political plank with the right wing ruling party. The benefits in a tough-on-national-security image are, perhaps, excusable. More problematic is ballast for the political project under way of the ruling party and its supportive pseudo-cultural formations. 

This has led to a growing suspicion that the Army Chief is down a political route, out of sync with the tradition of public reticence by military chiefs and the apolitical character of the Army. Since political and professional are inversely proportional, this impacts military professionalism. 

The Army's leadership needs to cauterise the Army from the influences from without. The Army commanders form the Army's collective leadership. The subtext in the words at the seminar of the two army commanders — perhaps unintended by the two — appear to call on their Chief to pull back from the brink. It is a timely call worth heeding.

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