In the forthcoming elections the Bharatiya Janata Party is politicising the armed forces, while accusing others of resorting to the same. The party initially had election posters featuring Wing Commander Abhinandan and the Pulwama martyrs alongside those of Prime Minister Modi. It was the Election Commission (EC) which objected, compelling the party to remove these posters. While posters have been removed, politicisation continues unabated.

Yogi Adityanath, the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister went so far as to term the armed forces as ‘Modiji ki Sena’. He made this statement while comparing the Congress’s approach to countering Pakistan’s actions with those of his party’s government. Amit Shah made a similar comment while addressing another election rally. VK Singh, the former army chief countered these comments, claiming they were unjustified. These also faced objections from all quarters including senior veterans, some of whom have approached the EC.

Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari objected to the air chief’s comments in Chandigarh when he stated that had the Rafale been in the Indian Air Force’s inventory, Pakistani aircraft would never have ventured across the LoC. The air chief had no political intention in his comment but was only answering a question in a press conference. Tewari claimed it was a politically loaded statement. Farooq Abdullah observing the mood of the nation even questioned the casualties in the Pulwama attack and the Indian riposte.

The BJP has begun terming all who question the armed forces on any of its actions as being antinational. It has sought to deny other political parties the benefit of challenging their claims. In a manner they are projecting that only they possess the right to praise the military and claim credit. This itself goes
against the very nature of a democracy where all institutions of the government are open to scrutiny.

There is no doubt that the armed forces are the most respected institution in the country, on whose performance the BJP is cashing in. The reasons are obvious. The military operates without consideration to caste, creed, religion or political bias. They have always performed successfully despite shortages in equipment. They have made the nation proud by their ability to succeed despite all odds and casualties. Exploiting their performance for political advantage is against the ethos of a democracy.

The armed forces belong to the nation and swear allegiance to the Constitution. They are responsible to the nation, not a political party, individual or political leader. Their supreme commander is the President, who in the Indian political system has little say in matters which concern the services. Thus, it is the party in power which takes all decisions concerning the armed forces and hence appears to consider it its right to exploit successes.

The armed forces chiefs are not expected to resign on change of government but complete their full tenure. An individual appointed as the next chief during the tenure of one government will assume his appointment despite a change of government. This indicates the apolitical nature of the forces and should continue to be respected.

Politicisation is a trend which should be avoided. The party in power can take credit for decisions it took, not for the operations which were successfully launched. That is the task of the armed forces. To say that the nation’s armed forces performed well is different and positive.

On the other hand, retired army generals have been seen wearing full medals along with party symbols and campaigning for elections, hoping to win the populace over with their army service background, exploiting the respect the nation has for the military. This is also politicisation of the armed forces and possibly of the worst order.

Army officers are granted their rank under Article 18 of the Constitution. This article permits them to carry their rank post retirement. Orders on the subject state that while a soldier retires, his rank never does. The rank is earned for the soldier’s commitment and dedicated service to the nation. It is also because of the apolitical stance of the armed forces and the values this service has inculcated in him, which are expected to be observed all through.

Joining a political party is one thing but exploiting rank and military service seeking votes for the party which he now represents is another. It is even more embarrassing when the officer concerned displays his medals alongside party symbols. This politicisation by the forces’ own is more hurtful than political parties terming the armed forces as belonging to an individual or a specific political party.

When a veteran decides to take the plunge into the political arena and participate in elections, rank should have no relevance. The individual has now chosen a career of serving the populace based on the views, concepts and thought process of a specific political party, not those of his military service nor of himself as an individual.

The higher the rank of the officer on retirement, the higher is the level of politicisation if he desires to participate in the electoral process with the backing of a political party. His seeking votes from members of the community which he once commanded in an apolitical environment is also against norms. The EC should bar veterans seeking to stand for elections from exploiting their ranks and medals, as it goes against the ethos of the service in which they earned these rank and medals.

The EC also needs to take note of the increased exploitation of the armed forces for political gains. This in the long term would not augur well for the nation and its armed forces. The armed forces need to be kept at a distance to maintain their apolitical stance. Governments may come and go, but the armed forces would remain. They would serve the nation as they have been doing, regardless of which party is in power.

(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)