After the Kargil war in 1999, the brass had opposed attempts by the Sangh parivar to use the army for political purposes.
With Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal decision not to publicly release video proof of the September 28 ‘surgical strikes’ across the Line of Control (LoC), the Pakistan Army has been allowed to save face and a route left open for de-escalating the on-going Indo-Pakistan confrontation, with India having had the last word.
In contrast to the army’s measured tone towards Pakistan – with Indian generals informing their Rawalpindi counterparts that “We don’t have a plan to further conduct such strikes”– the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is assiduously milking the military’s success in on-going electoral campaigns in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur.
The BJP’s election posters in UP have military imagery in the background, with an armed soldier and a reference to the ‘surgical strikes’. In the foreground stands Modi, clenched fist upraised, threatening Pakistan. Neither the army chief, nor army headquarters has yet objected.
The traditionally apolitical army had taken a more principled stand after the victorious Kargil campaign in 1999, when politicians similarly tried to piggyback on the military’s success. Then army chief, General V.P. Malik, in his book, Kargil: From Surprise to Victory, reveals he complained to former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, about National Democratic Alliance (NDA) election posters that featured the three military chiefs. Vajpayee ensured it did not happen again.
Malik also describes “a large band of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) representatives” descending upon army HQ on August 23, 1999, carrying party and religious symbols and 20,000 rakhis for the troops in Kargil.
“They had brought along half-a-dozen photographers and insisted on meeting the Army chief [me]. When they were refused permission, they forced their way into the media cell offices and handed over the rakhis to the staff, making sure that the TV cameras caught all the action. From the next day onwards, entry into [army HQ] was further restricted”, writes Malik.
In a paragraph that resonates today, Malik says: “The armed forces were anguished because they were getting sucked into electoral politics as a result of the blatant effort to politicise the war for immediate electoral advantage. At one stage, in desperation, I had to send across a strong message through the media: ‘Leave us alone; we are apolitical’.”
The current army chief has not trodden this principled path. For now, the army is understandably happy that the BJP government’s pro-activeness allowed it to turn the humiliation of losing 18 soldiers in the Uri attack on September 18 into the cross-LoC success just eleven days later.
It is unclear how long this confluence of interests will continue, since the BJP is not content with the spotlight focused on the army. The government wants the lion’s share of the credit for having shown Pakistan its place.
This was evident a day after the ‘surgical strikes’, when defence minister, Manohar Parrikar, electioneering in Uttarakhand, compared the army with the mythological monkey-God, Hanuman, in needing to be reminded of its powers. “I only made the army aware of the powers it already possessed and it succeeded. On Modiji’s instructions, the army did a brilliant job”, he said.
On Friday, Amit Shah demonstrated how the BJP is associating its image with that of the army, while putting Modi front-and-centre in claiming credit. He stated: “the achievement is the army’s, but the determination and political intent is Prime Minister Modi’s.”
Shah is unapologetic about using the ‘surgical strikes’ as an electoral issue, stating: “We will go to the people with this issue — because every responsible party should motivate the army.”
The government and the BJP are also using the army to deflect any criticism, whether political or strategic. Whenever asked to release video evidence of the strikes, or to brief prominent political leaders, BJP spokespersons have argued forcefully that “questioning our brave soldiers” amounts to anti-nationalism; and, indeed, acting as a front for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
With every major political party calculating that it would be politically suicidal to question an army that is riding high on public popularity, there is little penetrative interrogation of the NDA’s handling of the issue.
By arrangement with Business Standard.