Above: PM Narendra Modi greeting the three service chiefs at the 2019 Republic Day celebrations at Rajpath/Photo: PIB
The government’s valour-for-votes call is unprecedented and unprincipled when it does not even have a national security strategy in place. True commitment to the Forces is missing and PM Narendra Modi is being seen as insensitive
By Gen Ashok K Mehta
After five years of the BJP-led government, whose ideology rests on Hindutva, it is fair to infer that it has succeeded in attracting elements of the armed forces and veterans towards its nationalist ethos. In other words, it has sown the seeds of politicisation that no other government has attempted. It seems this was not a conscious strategy, but something that mushroomed after the post-Uri surgical strikes in 2016.
The colossal electoral dividend reaped by the government in the assembly elections in 2016-18 was a game-changer. It was then that the Army was placed on a pedestal and national security and counter-terrorism came to occupy centre stage.
Similarly, the Pulwama attack was a godsend for a government which had lost some of its sheen after setbacks in the assembly elections in three Hindi heartland states. The Balakot air strikes resuscitated the eclipsed image of the government.
The BJP’s likely long-term vision is to de-secularise the military and get it to be committed to its ideology. Its allies in this mission are the RSS and the VHP who have become more vocal in their political pronouncements.
RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat recently observed that his swayamsevaks, recognised as highly selfless and a disciplined Hindu organisation, can mobilise in a few days and not the seven months that the Army took to mobilise in 2001. The excessively communal former BJP MP, Vinay Katiyar, has said Muslims should leave India and go to Bangladesh and Pakistan, not realising that there are many Muslims in the military too. Praveen Togadia of the VHP has said that stonepelters in Kashmir should be bombed. The RSS is the cutting edge of BJP’s election-winning campaign.
The Army and the Air Force ground and air raids, respectively, have the potential to transform the political fortunes of the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a decisive leader. These two military operations, coupled with the less politicised Doklam stand-off in the Chinese Chumbi Valley, have reset the national security discourse catalysed by the media hype on patriotism and nationalism. The BJP has even appropriated the Army’s motto: Nation First.
The grand irony is this: While milking the “Sena” for electoral gains, it has done precious little for sharpening its deterrence through defence modernisation and solid welfare measures. Still, former Vice Chief of Army Lt Gen Sarath Chand, who in 2018 lamented the government’s meagre defence funding while deposing before a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, joined the BJP last month. So did former DG, CRPF, Prakash Mishra. But Chand’s contemporary who was billed as the hero of the surgical strikes, Lt Gen DS Hooda, who helped the Congress party in developing its national security agenda, did not join that party. Remaining apolitical even after demitting office was the soldier’s credo and still is for many.
The Indian Armed Forces are historically and traditionally uniquely apolitical, secular and professional and under civilian political control. Its equivalent might not exist even in developed democracies. Sadly, civilian control has degenerated to bureaucratic control and Service Chiefs, mighty in their own right, have abrogated their constitutional responsibility towards the forces for fear of upsetting their apple cart. Rarely have Service Chiefs stood up individually or collectively for a just cause.
Even before 156 veterans had written the letter to the president about the government’s misuse of military operations to advance its political agenda, the Chiefs should have reached Rashtrapati Bhavan to apprise the Supreme Commander, President Ram Nath Kovind, of this serious breach of military ethics and ethos.
Never in the history of cross-border forays, mostly kept under wraps, has the government tomtommed military operations to further its electoral fortunes. Calling the armed forces “Modi’s Army” or Prime Minister Modi himself urging people in Latur to vote for Pulwama martyrs and the Air Force which carried out the airstrikes in Balakot is unprecedented and unprincipled. The Election Commission is silent over Modi’s valour-for-votes call in defiance of its ruling “that political parties/candidates/campaigners should desist from indulging in propaganda involving activities of the defence forces”.
Just last month, the Australian Chief of Defence Staff, Gen Angus Campbell, intervened in an interaction between Defence Minister Christopher Pyne and soldiers, pointing out that he was raising a political issue. In March 1977, Army Chief Gen TN Raina did not oblige Prime Minister Indira Gandhi with an election-related and politically motivated request. The previous evening, Gen Raina had spoken at the Rotary Club in New Delhi where he said the Indian Army is an apolitical institution.
In his book, Kargil: From Surprise to Victory, then Army Chief Gen VP Malik wrote that the ruling BJP-led government was politicising the war for electoral gains and he had to send a strong message through the media: “Leave us alone, we are apolitical.” Why Gen Malik did not go to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as he had done earlier over pictures of the three Service Chiefs on election banners is not explained.
Earlier instances of politicisation are in the Jawaharlal Nehru-Krishna Menon era when the latter, gunning for Army Chief Gen KS Thimayya, had placed his acolytes to key command appointments leading to the Himalayan debacle in 1962. In 1996, on the 50th anniversary of India’s independence, the BBC called the Indian Army the last bastion of democracy.
It was, therefore, extremely surprising that the BJP chose to field controversial and former Army Chief Gen VK Singh for a Lok Sabha seat in 2014. Gen Singh had distinguished himself in office by taking his own government to court on a personal matter of his age, breaking the Army’s code of service before self. But his presence in the cabinet has made no difference to the lackadaisical approach of the government towards the Armed Forces because it was he who in 2013 had complained about critical deficiencies in the Army (which have not been fully made up to date) that created a furore in Parliament. Gen Singh said anyone calling the Army Modi’s Sena is a traitor, but soon backtracked as UP Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, his star campaigner, had said it.
The current political virus spreading to the military has its origins in the surgical strikes of 2016. Ministers in the government were freely using the military strikes to canvass for votes, with pictures of then Director General Military Operations Lt Gen Ranbir Singh flanked by Modi and BJP President Amit Shah on billboards and banners. Then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, an RSS pracharak, would regale his votaries with stories of how he had infused in the Army the Hanuman spirit.
Later, Yogi Adityanath used the same simile after Balakot. BJP leaders used pictures of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman till they were asked by the EC to remove them. The BJP is intoxicated by its Balakot brew.
Modi boasted: “Ghar ghar me ghuskar Modi ne mara hai.” Amit Shah defiantly told a TV channel that his party would use the air strikes to garner votes, adding the Congress did so after 1971. Shah equating Balakot with Bangladesh is incredible. And Modi’s campaign chants of “Mere saath bolo, Sena ki Jai” are self-serving.
The government’s glorification of the military is, in reality, the deification of its party and leadership. Ministers tying rakhis on soldiers in Siachen and Modi spending Diwali with them is symbolism.
Modi’s true commitment to the Sena can be judged from the following: Four defence ministers in five years; lowest defence budgets since 1962; condemned by his own party stalwarts heading the parliamentary standing committee on defence (Maj Gen BC Khanduri, who was sacked) and Estimates Committee of Parliament (Murli Manohar Joshi, now sidelined); aborting appointment of CDS (after Parrikar had promised it); no measures to simplify, fast track and depoliticise defence acquisition; implementing only a one-time OROP and blocking award of Non Functional Upgrade recommended by the Seventh Pay Commission which has been given to all Grade A services, including the central police.
The last two issues have been taken to court by the military and are being opposed by the government.
How can the government fight this election on a national security plank when it does not even have a national security strategy? Yes, Modi delivered on the National War Memorial, but muddied the sacrosanct event by politicising it. Veterans were angry and took to social media, slamming Modi for being insensitive.
In his interview to The Times of India (April 17), Modi asked: “Who are the people claiming politicisation of the armed forces?” and answered himself: “They are the same people who took credit for victory in the 1971 war.”
No, Prime Minister Modi, these are also veterans (not just the opposition parties), including former Service Chiefs who have never earlier collectively complained about the politicisation of the forces. This is not “desh bhakti” by any stretch of imagination.
You’re on the slippery slope of politicising the only institution the country trusts. Ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, a survey by Lokniti and the Azim Premji University indicated that the Army is the most trusted institution (88 percent) and political parties the least (minus 55 percent). Service Chiefs should find this an opportune moment to make Modi walk the talk on Sena ki Jai.
—The writer has fought in all the wars after 1947, is a founder member of the Defence Planning Staff in 1986 and served extensively in Kashmir and the North east. He was Commander of the Indian Peace Keeping Forces (South) in Sri Lanka and is currently engaged in Track Two conflict resolution