Blurring the lines between soldiers and political activity is good neither for society nor for the military
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 30th April 19
There was a public furore in the United Kingdom in 2009, when aspiring prime minister David Cameron announced the elevation to the House of Lords of the former British chief of general staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt. Even Cameron’s own party men objected to violating a longstanding convention that senior military officers steer clear of party politics, even in retirement. A senior Tory leader pithily summed up the widespread unease, telling The Guardian: “This is unwise. Dannatt is a perfectly decent man. But he has absolutely no political experience. All he can bring to the table is his military experience. How are his successors in the military going to take to his position?”
In India, however, there was scarcely a whimper of disquiet on Saturday, when Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman ceremonially inducted seven senior military veterans into the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a public function. One of them, Lieutenant General JBS Yadava, declared: “I agree that it is believed that defence forces will not go with any party. But, every person has a right to political thought… We can’t just stay on sidelines.”
Earlier this month, a former army vice chief, Lieutenant General Sarath Chand, was similarly inducted into the ruling party. While in service, he had testified before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on defence that the government had failed to allocate funds needed to replace the army’s antiquated equipment. Now, less than a year after retiring, here he was declaring: “No one has worked for the military as much as the BJP.”
True, there are no legal or legislative hurdles to a military veteran playing a political role, nor do Indian generals adhere to the British tradition of eschewing electoral politics after retirement. Even so, many military veterans percieve a moral barrier between themselves and active politics. From the day they don the uniform, military personnel are taught to be proudly apolitical – a vital instrument of the state, not of one or another government, and certainly not of any political party. In officers messes, two subjects were taboo for discussion: ladies and politics. These time-tested traditions are the military’s institutional safeguards to keep it out of the political arena. A clear distance is considered to be essential between soldiers and political activity.
That conviction has driven some 500 well-respected senior veterans, including former service chiefs, to petition the President, expressing their disquiet over “the unusual and completely unacceptable practice of political leaders taking credit for military operations like cross-border strikes, and even going so far as to claim the Armed Forces to be “Modi ji ki Sena”. This is in addition to media pictures of election platforms and campaigns in which party workers are seen wearing military uniforms…” The petition asks the President “to ensure that the secular and apolitical character of our Armed Forces is preserved.”
This is not to suggest that national security and defence should be off-limits for discussion in an election campaign. Quite the contrary, since the defence of the realm is the first duty of any government. Every party should and must present a detailed defence manifesto and face interrogation about how they propose to build India’s military sinews while diverting as little money as possible from other pressing needs like education and healthcare. In reality, this vitally important debate over a responsibility that consumes some 16 per cent of government expenditure has been crowded out by chest thumping and braggadocio and vulgar threats to potential adversaries that apparently amuse a large section of the voters but do little to deter potential enemies. This is a role that ex-servicemen could usefully play a role in, such as Lieutenant General DS Hooda’s preparation of a National Security Strategy that has informed the Congress Party’s defence manifesto. Unlike the generals who joined the BJP in a blaze of publicity and now find themselves sidelined, Hooda has declined to join any party, content to share his experience and expertise for the national interest.
Within the military, everyone understands the ongoing political gamesmanship in beguiling voters with the rubric of “teaching Pakistan a lesson”. For a military that has, over the decades and under successive political dispensations, been degraded, starved of resources and devalued in relative precedence, there is heady gratification in suddenly occupying the limelight, being lauded by the political elite and deified by the cheering throng. But when the lights dim and the applause fades, soldiers, sailors and airmen can hardly miss the depressing realisation that they are no better off than before. The many promises of bigger budgets, faster modernisation, state-of-the-art weaponry and respect from the ministry or the civil officials who rule their lives turn out to be hot air. As would be vouchsafed by thousands of disabled veterans who are spending their retirement fighting in court for their elusive benefits, it is the government and the defence ministry that stands in their way.
Starry-eyed former generals dreaming of political careers would do well to recognise that political parties have actually fielded only a handful of veterans in elections over the last two decades. Walter C Ladwig III, an India specialist at King’s College, London has compared the percentage of veterans in the Lok Sabha with those in the UK parliament and in the US Congress over the years. In the 1970s, 70 per cent of American Congresspersons were veterans, mainly due to conscription during the Vietnam War. After the draft was ended, this dropped to 50 per cent in the 1990s. Today, long after the era of compulsary service, 19 per cent of US congresspersons are military veterans. In the UK, that figure currently hovers around eight per cent. In India, from the first to the 14th Parliaments, just two-to-four per cent of the elected members had a “professional background”, which includes policemen, military veterans and civilian professionals like doctors and engineers.
This is unlikely to change anytime soon. Election Commission data indicates that 16 veterans were given party tickets in the 1999 general election, a figure that dropped to 10 in 2004, seven in 2009, before rising again to 16 in 2014. The numbers could be marginally higher, since Ladwig has identified veterans through military ranks affixed with members’ names. Those who left out their ranks, such as General VK Singh, have not been counted.
For many veterans who have served an apolitical ideal of the state, the key question today remains: is the military being saffronised; and how much concern should that arouse? It must be remembered that militaries the world over are conservative organisations and, therefore, tend to align themselves with parties like the BJP that propagate conservative social and political values. What is of deep concern though, is the aggressive deification of the soldier evident today, amplified by a jingoistic media. With service chiefs and generals increasingly paraded to endorse government viewpoints, or provide “clean chits” against criticism, there should be worry about the use of the military – and of notions of the “national interest” or majoritarian religious sentiment – to effectively shut down the space for critique or doubt. This device, which is straight from the European fascist playbook, is good neither for society, nor polity, nor the military itself. It is time the generals stepped back.