From Down Under, a Reminder that Armed Forces and Politicians Don't Mix

Remaining aloof from the political fray is central to the stature of any modern, professional military – whether in Australia or India.

New Delhi: Every country is proud of its armed forces, and makes it a point to display that pride. But not every government is respectful of their dignity. The difference is easily lost in the desire for political publicity and a pliant media’s willingness to pander to politicians.

This week, Australia’s defence chief Angus Campbell offered the world a graceful reminder of what a soldier’s dignity includes: Not being put on parade to help politicians seeking re-election.

On March 28, at a press conference in Canberra, senior chiefs of the Australian armed forces were joined by defence minister Christopher Pyne, to announce a successor after the retirement of Air Force Chief Leo Davies.

However, when the minister took a journalist’s question on elections – on whether the ruling Liberal National Party would consider allying with the right-wing One Nation in the federal election later this year – General Campbell quietly intervened, tapping the minister on his back.

“My apologies,” the general said, before the assembled press. “I might just ask that the military officers step aside while you’re answering these kind of questions.”

The men in uniform then stepped off stage to allow the political questions to proceed.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation quoted a senior military official, who said the incident was a “timely reminder” that politicians cannot use defence personnel as props in an election year.

A similar reminder would be appropriate in India, especially as the Narendra Modi government – besieged by bad news on governance and the economy – swings into a campaign centred on national security.

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After the confrontation with Pakistan this February, the Election Commission had to remind political parties (read: the ruling party) not to use the armed forces for political advertisements. Yet the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has continued to take credit for the actions and sacrifices of India’s military men.

In its leaders’ speeches as well as in campaign publicity, it has placed itself besides military icons – including the latest one, wing commander Abhinandan Varthaman – to take advantage of their popularity and charisma. In its ‘Main Bhi Chowkidar’ campaign video, it has used footage of Narendra Modi inside a tank.

Barely a week after the Balakot airstrike, BJP MP Manoj Tiwari addressed a rally wearing camoflauge fatigues.  “I feel proud to wear it,” Tiwari later said, according to NDTV. “To respect the armed forces is patriotism. The people of the country are proud to wear it.”

The BJP has tried to claim a monopoly on pride in India’s armed forces. In doing so, however, it routinely violates their dignity, by appropriating their valour and sacrifices in order to fight elections.

As General Campbell demonstrated this week, remaining aloof from the political fray is central to the stature of any modern, professional military, whether in Australia or in India. In India, this remove has been fundamental to the success of both electoral democracy and national defence.

It has also been undermined by the ruling party over the last five years.

Writing for The Wire, defence analyst and retired colonel Ajai Shukla recalled the aftermath of the Kargil War in 1999, “when politicians similarly tried to piggyback on the military’s success.”

At the time, however, the army chief General V.P. Malik resisted the assault on the dignity of the forces. In his book on the Kargil war, Malik wrote: “The armed forces were anguished because … 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’.”

Since 2014, however, that message has been muted. It began with the unprecedented appointment of a retired army chief, the controversial General V.K. Singh, as a BJP minister of state. In 2016, the serving Chief of Army Staff, General Dalbir Singh Suhag, would feel compelled to sue the minister for interfering with Suhag’s promotion “with mysterious design [and] malafide intent.”

V.K. Singh. Credit: PTI

V.K. Singh. Credit: PTI

Since then, the big media has relentlessly promoted other former officers as right-wing celebrities and noisy propagandists for the BJP. The ruling party, meanwhile, has used India’s military as a platform for base electioneering – as when the Prime Minister attacked the Congress party during a speech to inaugurate the National War Memorial.

These efforts to stain khakhi with saffron, and dye saffron in khakhi, are presented as gestures of pride in India’s armed forces. But they damage their dignity – which demands that when the battle is merely political, men in uniform be allowed to exit the frame.