The ongoing elections have impacted the reputation and standing of the armed forces in multiple ways.
There is no political party which has not referred to them, sought to use veterans to advantage and made claims of employment of military power to counter Pakistani threats. The apolitical stance of the armed forces and its silent actions in retaliating to Pakistan have been exploited. The Congress commenced its election campaign claiming the Rafale deal was corrupt.
When the air force chief stated that the aircraft was a game changer and essential, he was given an abrupt shut-up call by Congress leaders. The party also approached Lt Gen Hooda, the erstwhile army commander, to write a national security paper for them, which found no place in their manifesto. In the run-up to the elections there was adverse name calling of the army chief, General Bipin Rawat, by politicians cutting across party lines, whenever he made a comment on national security which even bordered on the political.
The BJP has, for most of its campaign, been harping on its role in handling national security and responding to Pakistan’s misadventures in Kashmir, mainly the Uri and Balakote attacks. They have claimed they are the only party to respond to Pakistan by striking across the border. It politicised the response of the armed forces based on their professionalism, disregarding propriety.
The Congress, not to be left behind, claimed similar strikes were also carried out during their watch, though considering national security these were not publicly announced. To add to the controversy, retired generals jumped into the fray of surgical strikes. Two former army chiefs, Generals Ved Malik and VK Singh, refuted the claims of the Congress stating that there were no such actions during their tenures.
To counter them, General Hooda, supporting the Congress, claimed that this had always been the norm. In a rare response to an RTI on conducted surgical strikes, Army HQs stated that it has “no record of any strikes across the border prior to 2016.” It is now left to the national public to interpret. This RTI reply implies that there were no strikes conducted with implicit sanction of service HQs and Central government.
Strikes were and have been always conducted on directions of local commanders to regain ascendency, post an action by Pakistan. All army personnel, having served along the Pakistan border, are aware of it. These have neither been officially documented nor projected in the media, due to prevailing government policies. As the nation moves into the last two phases of elections, additional stories of misuse of military facilities are being projected.
The story of INS Viraat, the aircraft carrier, being used by Rajiv Gandhi for a holiday over three decades ago was raised for the first time. It also brought forth naval veterans, for and against the charge, with their own political biases being questioned. In the weeks preceding the elections, a plethora of senior army veterans joined BJP ranks in public events. Few have participated in the campaigning process, thus proving that their joining was not for the ongoing elections but to enhance the image of the party amongst the serving and veteran community.
Disgruntled with the increased politicisation of the armed forces in the election process, projection of photographs of martyrs of Pulwama and Wing Commander Abhinandan, a group of veterans wrote a letter to the President, the supreme commander, on the issue. Nothing changed, politicisation continued. Only the posters were removed on the orders of the Election Commission. Demands for votes on account of Pulwama and Balakote were not considered wrong by the commission.
The Supreme Court permitted armed forces personnel to vote at their place of posting in peace stations. When members of an establishment in Jabalpur proceeded to vote, videos were made of their parked vehicles and uniformed drivers. The same was projected on social media with claims that they were sent to vote for the BJP. The entire commentary in the video was done by members of the Congress, with army personnel maintaining silence. The army was forced to issue a rebuttal as this accusation touched the very core of its apolitical stance.
In Leh, the District Election Commissioner wrote to the local army HQ on a complaint of malpractices in the electronic postal ballot system, adopted for the army. The complaint was generic and forwarded by two independent candidates claiming votes were being given in favour of the BJP. Since it concerned postal ballots, it had no effect on local elections. Yet the army investigated and responded.
The case was subsequently closed. The army statement read, ‘the complaints are unfounded and appear to have been made to tarnish Army’s image.’ Clearly, this election has begun witnessing a new trend. Never in the history of the nation have the armed forces been the dominant factor in electioneering by major political parties. The political division of its veterans has never been so open. Military and politics, as also national security and votes, are now more intertwined than ever before.
National security and the armed forces have always been synonymous, but for now are being employed in tandem to garner votes. Understanding reasons for this is not rocket science. The armed forces are presently the most respected organisation in the country, especially after they made the nation proud, post Uri and Pulwama.
Exploiting their success for political gains enables hiding domestic failures. National security and performance of the armed forces also transcends religion and caste politics, which have till recent elections been vote garnering factors, a trend which the BJP seeks to break. Over-projection of the armed forces and national security for securing votes does not augur well for the nation.
It overrides other national issues of economy, employment and social schemes, which should have played a major role. With increased politicisation, the apolitical stance of the military has also come under question. It will take considerable effort by the military top brass to restore this. Will political parties join hands it by passing requisite legislations against its exploitation in future elections? The military must be kept apolitical.
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)