As a senior military veteran, I can say without hesitation that the Indian armed forces have undergone their most sustained spell of politicisation under the ruling establishment since 2014 with the apparent consent of the armed forces hierarchy. The Indian military has stood out for not yielding to its enduring principles of being apolitical, secular and professional. It has shone as a beacon of sound civil-military relations with the military under civilian control though more bureaucratic than political. When political authority is weak – civilian services predominate and vice versa. Unfortunately, the Indian political class largely due to its ignorance, intellectual lethargy and absence of strategic vision has let the bureaucracy call the shots though ultimate accountability lies with them. A strategic doctrine for the armed forces was ready thrice but the political leadership evaded its publication and the bureaucracy could not/did not persuade it to approve it.
Only last week the frontline paper carried pictures of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in his stiffly starched dhoti performing Shastra Pooja in an Army unit near Tawang. It is not the first time he has applied vermilion on weapons and painted swastikas on aircraft. It is a gross violation of regimental practices and procedures where it is the prerogative of the Unit Commander and the priest to perform the ritual during Dussehra. Successive Army and Air chiefs have failed to tell him about it. He is the first defence minister to do so. This is not a colonial legacy but a recognised unit military practice. The Nepal Army does a grand parade in Tundikhel, Kathmandu where the Army Chief performs the Shastra Pooja in Tundikhel, Kathmandu while the President and Prime Minister watch the ceremony. In the guise of dismantling colonial practices, recruitment of Gorkhas from Nepal is suspended. This has upset Nepal and will eventually become another cause for anti-India sentiment.
The appointment of late Gen Bipin Rawat, whom this government has glorified on a scale no previous government has commemorated any other soldier, was made superseding two of his seniors, depicted merit trumping seniority. But that was only part of the scheme. On 6 December 2017, Rawat announced that “somehow military must be kept out of politics” adding that “in earlier days, women and politics were taboo in discussions”. But later he was tempted to let his guard slip by indulging in activities that were political like going to Gorakhnath for a public event. Further, the Army was asked to spread mats for yoga and build bridges in Mumbai while RSS leaders pontificated on fighting in J&K, their mobilisation drills and castigated Muslims though many soldiers have won valour in battle. The government added the name of former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar to IDSA without consulting the Executive Committee of a registered public institute and for the first time, a defence institution was named after a politician.
The Defence Expo, which was always held in Delhi, was first shifted to Chennai when Nirmala Sitharaman became defence minister, then to Goa after Parrikar and finally to Rajnath Singh’s constituency Lucknow, where it has remained. Rawat was appointed the first CDS. He was followed as COAS by Gen Narvane who announced at his first press conference, that the Army will be guided by its allegiance to the constitution and its core values in the preamble of justice liberty, equality and fraternity. Why Narvane was not made CDS following Rawat’s tragic death seems to have been part of the government’s grand plan of deep selection, a euphemism for appointing individuals of the government’s choice. For the appointment of retired Lt Gen Anil Chauhan who was being groomed for his future appointment as CDS in the NSC Secretariat, the Army, Navy and Air Force Acts had to be amended to make retired Lt Gens and equivalents eligible for the post. In all democracies, CDS/CJS is one of the service chiefs, never a re-mustered three-star.
Most of the government’s unpopular schemes like Agniveer and the revision of disability pension, were endorsed by the CDS. Military budgets that have never crossed 2 per cent of the GDP (Minus pensions) have been deemed adequate by the service Chiefs while one of the government’s ministers, a former COAS, leaked to the media that there were gaping holes in inventories. In 2018, Rawat called the budget ‘adequate’ adding ‘it is merely a management problem’. But BJP’s own former Minister BC Khanduri, head of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Defence said an inadequate budget has severe implications for national security. He was sacked. The litmus test is defence allocation for modernisation and utilising it.
As state and national elections approached, the military was ordered to ask soldiers on leave to publicise its development projects. Last month, the government asked its babus – Joint Secretary and below – to publicise the projects. MoD was asked to create 822 selfie points at war museums and war memorials with pictures of PM Modi to publicise government achievements.
There has been widespread opposition to this by the Association for Democratic Rights and retired bureaucrats. Abundant is goodwill and good ideas but in symbolism- rakhi tying at Siachen, presenting Diwali sweets to troops, ‘Meri Mati Mera Desh’ and ‘Shastra Pooja.’ But veterans are still battling imperfect OROP, missing NFU and disability pension in court. Politicisation can only stop if Generals will end sycophancy, put their feet down and remain secular and professional.