Business Standard, 27th Feb 07
While the United Kingdom scales down its forces in Iraq to just 6400 soldiers, Second Lieutenant Henry Wales, otherwise known as Prince Harry, will proceed with his regiment to command four Scimitar tanks in southern Iraq. Third in line to the throne, Prince Harry was granted permission only after a two-hour interview with British army chief, Sir Richard Dannatt. The prince, better known for partying than patriotism, told his chief what he had pithily said in an interview on his 21st birthday. “There is no way I am going to put myself through Sandhurst (military academy) and then sit on my arse back home while my boys are out fighting for their country.”
Pertinent questions are often raised about the relevance of the British monarchy and the prince’s insistence on military service in a dangerous war zone will be dismissed by many as a PR gimmick to encourage the British taxpayer to continue paying millions of pounds each year to support the royalty. But Prince Harry is going ahead anyway, exactly as the British elite has since the crusades: by stepping forward at a time of war. Royalty, aristocracy, and the landed gentry traditionally formed the kernel around which the British built up armies in times of crisis, like when Napoleon rose in Europe. When the storm passed, the armies were disbanded and the upper classes went back to the good life, their credibility burnished. The Royal Navy stayed intact, ruling the waves in both war and peace.
India’s royal families had some of that élan, but this fading tradition seems to have ended with Captain Amarinder Singh of Patiala. The closest royals come to the military today is in polo matches with the army. If one were to scan the houses of parliament, military tradition would be even harder to find. Amongst the old guard, there are BJP ministers Jaswant Singh and BC Khanduri. The young are anything but Turks; only Barmer MP, Manvendra Singh, who served two tenures in J&K in the Territorial Army, has done his bit to beat back the barbarians at the barricades.
Military service may sit well with royal tradition, one might observe; is there any virtue in military service by the representatives of the people in a democracy? Is the grassroots activist who has devoted his or her life to serving the masses any less equipped for making legislative decisions in parliament? Despite the many with criminal convictions, parliament can boast of eminent social workers, academics and industrialists, doctors, lawyers and economists. Nobody seriously suggests that sitting in parliament should entail a pre-condition of military or other national service. But there is cause for concern when practically nobody who sits in parliament has ever served or been closely associated with national defence.
The result is a military that is utterly isolated from the power elite and a ruling class that knows only second-hand about the hard issues of defence and security. This disconnect will be starkly evident in parliament house when the annual budget is discussed later this week. If half a century of experience is anything to go by, the one ministry allocation that will pass without debate will be the largest that Mr Chidambaram will make on the 28th of February: almost 100,000 crores to the defence of the realm. With little institutional knowledge in the House of strategy, force structuring, manpower utilisation and equipment options, the possibility of a vibrant and interrogative defence debate is dead on arrival.
Paradoxically, this unquestioned windfall provides no joy to a military that increasingly believes that, with little personal stake in the health of the armed forces, the powerful merely allot them money and turn away. Chain emails are circulating widely amongst junior and middle-ranking officers, complaining of widespread indifference to soldiers and to their harassed families at home. When military officers approach the state and district administration for redress or assistance, there is little response. Rising suicides in the military are wrongly ascribed to difficult working conditions. The biggest killer is jawans’ rising frustration at being unable to do anything for their families back home. Seeing itself as “special”, different from other professions, the military feels terribly let down by mere lip service from parliament.
The shortfall of personal connects with the leadership is compounded by a new tendency within right-of-centre political parties like the BJP to view the military as a possible vote bank. But the BJP has run up against the cold reality that serving and retired soldiers do not constitute a significant vote bank in any constituency. For a polity that increasingly thinks in vote-bank terms, defence is disqualified even on that account. Taking the enormous trouble to acquire a defence background, therefore, carries little premium in Indian politics.
In contrast, Prince Harry’s decision has reminded British soldiery that their country’s elite is not entirely disconnected from the boys in the trenches. For the rest of his cosseted life, Prince Harry will have a clear sense of what is involved in sending soldiers to war, and a first hand experience of the feelings and thoughts that drive the men and women of his armed forces. These are important issues that those on Raisina Hill know little about.