The politicisation of the Armed Forces is a phrase being bandied about a lot in the recent past. I have personally been trying to figure out what exactly people using this term are implying. Lt Gen CS Panag, a former Army Commander and prolific writer/commentator, writes in a recent piece, “Politicisation implies that the armed forces identify with a political ideology or a political thought-process and start exercising influence in the affairs of the state. Military advice on national security becomes biased as does its actions with respect to internal security. This does not augur well for a multi-cultural, multi-lingual and multi-religious society that requires a secular and apolitical military.”
However, the examples he cited of this phenomenon – “… exploitation of the latter (military) for electoral gains. Military-themed political posters and politicians campaigning in military fatigues“. To me, these examples sound more like ‘militarisation of politics’ than ‘politicisation of the military’.
The proponents of this theory, including Gen Panag, express apprehension of India going the Pakistan way if this trend continues. I’m confused, because on one hand there’s fear that the military leadership is so weak that it is providing ‘biased military advice on national security’ to pander to the political interests of the ruling party, while on the other is the apprehension that the same weak military leadership will rise and go the Pakistan way. It’s a paradox – if a chief flexes his muscle he’s a danger to democracy, and if he listens to the government he’s political.
My own perception of the issues involved is as follows. Armed forces in the subcontinent have evolved from the imperial Indian Army and inherited the same ethos at the time of independence. It was considered taboo for anyone in the army to have any political thoughts or opinions since domestic politics was limited to the freedom struggle. It was natural for a colonial power to want to keep the army, the primary weapon of colonial power, as far away from such political thought as possible. They had learnt the lessons from the Mutiny of 1857 well.
With the transition of India into a democracy, the soldiers also transitioned from being subjects of a colonial monarchy to citizens of democracy with voting rights. Yet, for decades, these rights remained theoretical. Continuation of a culture of considering anything ‘political’ as abhorrent, low awareness or interest in politics and systemic inefficiency of the postal ballot system kept approximately thirteen lakh servicemen (about 1% of the electorate) and their families disenfranchised.
Yet, in a democracy, an apolitical army does NOT mean a disenfranchised army. And for each soldier to arrive at an independent decision and be able to cast his (or her) vote, political awareness is essential. So we are at a point today where, thanks to the internet and smartphones, every jawan is abreast with the latest news, and has a political opinion. Axiomatically, so does every officer, including the chiefs of the armed forces. Yet, it would be incorrect to call the armed forces politicised because it comprises of individuals with political opinions of their own. I strongly believe our traditions, legacy and ethos enables us to separate personal opinions from professional obligations, not allowing the former to affect the latter.
The nature of democracy is such that different political parties will form the government at different times. Once a party is in government, its ideology and priorities dictate government policies. The armed forces are amongst the instruments for the execution of these policies – as much as the diplomats, Railways or the Highway Authority. Undoubtedly, they are the most ‘impactful’ instrument and thus have to be used with due caution and deliberation. Yet, they are bound to act in accordance with the directions of the government – irrespective of whether the chiefs or the rank and file are in alignment with the views of the political party in power. It is their job to translate the government’s directives into actionable courses of action, and it is for the government to select a particular course. If any of the service chiefs disagree with the government’s decision, they can register their dissent by resigning. Disobedience is not an option. At least not without starting down a slippery slope, the kinds that Gen Panag is probably warning us about. And to suggest that the inputs provided by the services would be engineered to suit the political interests of the party in power is to imply a lack of moral uprightness in the military leadership.
Given the history of our armed forces being the strongest upholder of democracy in the past 70 years, the Gen is being a tad unfair to those who have succeeded him in high places within the ranks. He’s assuming that current or future incumbents would not be as steeped in democratic values as previous generations. Or not strong enough to be forced into actions that may be detrimental to national interests, purely for political gains of their own or of the ruling party.
The fact that carrying out air strikes was presented by the then air chief as an option after the 26/11 Mumbai attack shows that the option was not something that the airforce came up with to “identify with a political ideology or political thought process“. It was a viable military option and was presented to the government then, as it was after Pulwama. The Manmohan government chose not to exercise the option, and the Modi government did. The decision was theirs’ respectively, as were any resultant blame or accolades. The Indian Air Force, needless to say, carried out its job professionally, as it would have done had it been given a go ahead in 2008.
The Balakot airstrikes were the military execution of a political directive. It was a quantum shift in our policy for response to terrorist attacks. If the government who made that policy shift wishes to cite it as one of its achievements in appealing to voters during re-election, I don’t think it construes “exploitation of the military for electoral gains”.Of course, I agree that acts using uniformed personnel on political posters or politicians campaigning wearing combat fatigues are ridiculous and should not be done. In any case, the Election Commission has put a stop to the practice of the former through a directive.
Our forces are as apolitical as they have been, and I am confident they have the resilience and organisational strength to remain so, even if some future regime tries to actually politicise it. And if you are curious to know what could happen in such an eventuality, I have written a fictional account of it in my book “Riding the Raisina Tiger“.