The recent letter by a group of veterans addressed to the President, who is also the supreme commander of the armed forces, opened a can of worms. The issue addressed by the veterans was ‘politicisation of the armed forces.’ Many subsequently raised questions on what politicisation implied. Further, was questioning the armed forces’ statements of success in operations and demanding proof, basically with political intentions of denying or grabbing votes, politicisation? Finally, can there be a law which can curb it.
The Indian armed forces have always stayed away from the political scene. Though soldiers possess the right to vote, yet they are neither addressed by political parties nor is politics officially discussed within the rank and file. Individuals have their own views and preferences, but these are neither official nor pushed down. Hence, the armed forces remain apolitical.
Politicisation gained limelight due to recent strikes by the armed forces as a counter to terrorist actions on our soil. The two surgical strikes into Pakistan, one post Uri, the other post Pulwama have been a display of professionalism of the armed forces when tasked.
These strikes have two connotations, the first is the ability of the central government to take a decision to conduct strikes across the border and the second is the professional and flawless manner of their actual conduct. The second cannot happen without the first and the first cannot be undertaken unless there is complete trust on the professionalism of the armed forces.
Looking back in history, the armed forces have always executed operations professionally, despite any government being in power. The 1971 war, operations against the LTTE in Sri Lanka, taking over the Siachen Glacier to thwart Pakistan, flawless airborne operations in the Maldives, strikes on terrorist camps in Myanmar and the Kargil war are some examples. In every case, the government of the day took the decision and the implementation was by the armed forces under their own planning and command. The government had no role beyond the decision.
This brings out that the government, considering all pros and cons, gave a green signal to the armed forces for conducting operations. It implies that the risk of escalation and loss of face in case the operation failed or ended in disaster would have to be borne by the government in power. That the armed forces would also lose their internal standing is a different factor altogether.
Launching operations across the border carries with it immense risk and cost, especially if the target country is another nuclear-powered adversary. It is not a simple case of Israel launching air strikes on Gaza. Failure at any level, increased casualties and inability to judge the level of escalation which may follow could lead to an embarrassment to the government which took this decision. Hence, the government possesses the right to take credit for the decision it took.
Further, the armed forces have always suggested counter actions whenever there has been an assault on the nation’s population and institutions, Mumbai and the Parliament attack being examples. However, fearing escalation and international pressure, governments have hesitated to act. Even at the height of the Kargil war, uncertain about escalation, the government of the day refused permission to cross the border. It is not that governments have doubted the professional capability of the armed forces but are unsure of escalation and international pressures.
The professionalism in the conduct of operations flows from the military’s training regimes and has remained constant over the years, despite shortfalls in weapons and equipment. Their success is also due to their having never permitted outside interference in operational planning and implementation. The point where politicisation commences is when the government seeks credit for the professionalism of the force, apart from its decision-making ability. Display of photographs of Wing Cdr Abhinandan was one such action.
Every government organ is open to question and can be asked to justify its claims. The Indian armed forces have a reputation of never hiding facts and casualties. Their willingness to sacrifice and keep national interest first have made them the most respected institution in the country. They have never in history been known to lie and hide facts, as done by their counterparts from across the border.
Demanding verification of claims, solely because the present government may gain politically from a decision it took, is equally politicisation of the armed forces. Thus, if viewed in the overall context every political party, in some form or the other has in the recent past been politicising the armed forces.
This brings the armed forces into limelight from which it must be kept away. It has been compelled on multiple occasions to justify its claims, either by releasing secret footage or other electronic data only to end multiple questions being raised by political entities. This questioning impacts military morale as it either challenges their actions or drags their professionalism into public debate.
At the same time, projecting a government’s ability to face risks, accept failures and setbacks and yet take the decision to employ the armed forces to convey a strong international message indicates political willpower and must be exploited. Simultaneously, promising to provide the forces with wherewithal for enhancing capabilities, upgrading the apex management of defence and enhanced welfare schemes for soldiers in election speeches and party manifestos is not politicisation. It is rather projecting the political party’s views on management of defence.
Professionalism of the military is its own internal development and it must remain so. Political decisions must and should be exploited. Questioning military performance solely to bring a political party down should be avoided. As a layman I feel there is a thin line separating the two propositions. Also, with limited knowledge of law I doubt that there can ever be strict legal guidelines which could define the same. In India, where the armed forces are away from the political slugfest, it is the maturity of political parties that must keep military issues away from their daily campaigning.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)