THE new year began with a communally corrosive hangover following disruptions in churches and calls from a Dharma Sansad (religious parliament) for genocide. Another disturbing carryover is the discernible politicisation of the military underway.
I joined the Army when Gen Thimayya (Timmy) was the COAS — a period that led up to the 1962 debacle when Prime Minister Nehru and Defence Minister VK Krishna Menon sought pliable Generals. I listened to Timmy’s address to officers in Srinagar that all was well in the Army following his resignation after his brush with Nehru and Menon, its withdrawal on Nehru’s urgings and subsequent unfounded rumours of a coup. It was not a happy start for independent India’s military with Menon also gunning for the outspoken Maj Gen Sam Manekshaw. Bar this short-lived but reputation-scarred decade, the military has remained firmly under civilian control and apolitical. No other Army Chief has ruffled feathers except the flamboyant and intellectually rich Gen Sundarji while Gen VK Singh created a storm in a teacup.
Fast-forward to late Gen Bipin Rawat. When he was appointed India’s first CDS, he was already beholden to the BJP government for superseding two senior Generals in making him the Army Chief. It is the incumbent government that created conditions for the negative political reorientation of the services. During Vajpayee’s rule, Defence Ministers George Fernandes (who sacked Navy Chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat) and Jaswant Singh (Army Major) would never have allowed the military to deviate from its compass bearing of being apolitical, professional and secular. There was no straying off course.
Prime Minister Modi’s grandstanding as the strong political leader of the armed forces commenced with the modest but politically exaggerated cross-border Uri surgical strikes. For the first time in the history of elections were pictures of Director General Military Operations, the strapping Sikh Lt Gen Ranbir Singh emblazoned on banners and posters alongside pictures of Modi and Amit Shah for the UP elections despite the Election Commission forbidding involving the military.
Three years later, Balakot air strikes ensured the BJP’s 303-seat victory in the General Elections; Balakot and the politics that engulfed it became folklore. The soldier was inveigled into domestic politics. The entrapment of the military and veterans began with an imperfect One Rank, One Pension which is locked in court. Tying rakhis to soldiers, carrying Diwali sweets for frontline troops and making much of them through symbolism won over soldiers. Troops reciprocated carrying yoga mats, constructing over-bridges and clearing garbage from mountains, thereby enabling officers to ingratiate themselves with the political class. The 60-year-old autonomous Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses was prefixed with the name of former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and for some time, carried Modi’s pictures on flyers.
Unobtrusively, SOPs were changed to apparently Hinduise, even saffronise the secular fighting forces. At the Artillery Regimental Centre in Deolali, arti was recited on parade with soldiers clapping. Enshrined on a prominent boulder on the parade ground was the symbol Om. Arti and Om celebrate the majority religion. For the first time, arti was sung on parade. In other regimental centres, the parade would end with singing the regimental anthem. The ceremony now ends with Bharat Mata Ki Jai. When Gen Naravane took over as the COAS, he said at his first press conference that he will be guided by the Constitution of India. He has not issued any reprimand.
Rawat at the helm was seen to be compliant with the government agenda. He associated with some events that were clearly political and supportive of the Central and state governments. He even skipped a Navy Day event for this. The political tamasha at the Purvanchal Expressway where the three services were key participants marked the height of brazenness. It seems Modi does not worry about the military correctness of involving soldiers in political events. The then Army Chief Gen Tappy Raina, when requested by Defence Minister Bansi Lal to provide water trucks for a political rally, refused to oblige. The Army’s evaluation of good order and military discipline is extremely strict and any violation falls in its net. Last year, a Lieutenant General Corps Commander, responsible for a quarter million men, had the temerity of tweeting ‘Happy birthday PM Modi’ and got away with wholesale sycophancy.
Another symbol of politicisation is acquiescence. Previously, Generals would write notes of protestation against this or that event which they regarded as being political, likely to adversely influence the homogeneity and secular credentials of the armed forces. That seems to be changing. Now, Navy and Air Force Chiefs have written letters to the President and Prime Minister for protection and preservation of communal harmony in the military following hate speeches at Dharam Sansad. Not a single Army Chief, according to Admiral Arun Prakash, was willing to sign on to the letter. Neither the President who is the supreme commander of the armed forces, nor the Prime Minister who is the operational executive, nor even the Home Minister has said a word condemning the organised event.
The ruling dispensation has excelled in high tokenism and higher symbolism towards defence and national security, even if it will not walk the talk in funding the military’s modernisation programmes. In its seven years, the average GDP share for defence has declined to around 1.6 per cent. Monies for modernisation are getting less than even committed liabilities — this after the LAC has become LoC. Gen Rawat’s biggest contribution to the armed forces would have been in arresting and rolling back the tide of politicisation begun in 2016 that will certainly damage the ethos, integrity and traditions of the armed forces, which in turn, will make dysfunctional his transformational defence reforms.
Celebrating atmanirbharta, the post-Independence privilege of importing Scotch in canteens has been banned. But the PM’s convoy has been upgraded from BMW to the Rs 12-crore Maybach Mercedes Benz.
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