The Many Dangers of Politicising India's Army

Using military activities to shop for votes will lead to political mud-slinging, to the detriment of the honour and sanctity of the special forces.

Indian army soldiers. Credit: PTI

Indian army soldiers. Credit: PTI

During President Pranab Mukherjee’s address to the joint session of parliament last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi thumped the desk loudest when the president mentioned the September surgical strikes by the army across the LoC. Surgical strikes have become the central theme to herald the BJP government’s stellar achievements in governance. However, it has not bothered to consider the negative consequences of using military operations to garner political dividends, especially when these could politicise the army, given that the strikes are contested by the opposition on grounds of their utility in arresting cross-border terrorism.

BJP president Amit Shah said demonetisation and surgical strikes will be the two key planks of the electoral campaign in the five poll-bound states. The party’s national executive referred to the strikes as out of the box and in consonance with its zero tolerance to terror policy. In Goa and elsewhere, defence minister Manohar Parrikar has been credited with planning and conducting the surgical strikes, which he has attributed to his RSS training. Parrikar is known to spend more time in Goa strategising over the assembly elections than in strengthening the country’s defence, as the latest defence budget shows; the BJP has launched a stealth operation – the veiled projection of Parrikar as chief minister of Goa. The Congress’s Sachin Pilot has accused Parrikar of being disinterested in his job and not living up to his appointment. The military is hypnotised with Parrikar’s ‘one foot in Panaji and one in New Delhi’. The problem for the BJP is that some of the opposition parties have doubted the utility of the strikes, saying they have not ended cross-border terrorism. Besides, it is not as if the strikes led to peace on the border. This happened largely due to new Pakistan army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s resolve to keep the border quiet.

Using surgical strikes to win votes will politicise military operations and the army. Further, debating surgical ops, which politicians may not understand, at public rallies is most improper. Winning the 1971 war is a world apart from the surgical strikes.

The government has deservedly and quickly lavished 32 awards for personnel of 4 and 9 Para Special Forces who carried out the strikes, making it the most highly decorated single operation in the history of the Indian army. Soon after the strikes, Parrikar attended a party rally at Lucknow where banners and posters carrying the pictures of director-general of military operations Lieutenant General Ranbir Singh – the public face of the surgical strikes – surrounded by Modi, Shah and Parrikar were seen. Pictures of army officers appearing on election posters violates army rules, traditions and military ethos. Modi also visited Lucknow, the centre of gravity of the UP elections, where he was presented the ceremonial mace as the ultimate conqueror of the enemy. The trailer of the political harvest of the surgical strikes was shown in parts of UP last year. Although demonetisation is a double-edged weapon, it has been portrayed as a surgical strike to rid the country of corruption, fake currency and terrorism. None of these objectives has been significantly achieved .

During the Kargil war, the BJP claimed major victory for evicting the Pakistan Army Northern Light Infantry disguised as terrorists from key heights in the Kargil sector in some of the most amazing uphill infantry battles, which, like the surgical strikes, were generously rewarded with many gallantry awards. The opposition Congress blamed the government for colossal intelligence failures at strategic and tactical levels, and questioned the government for making a scapegoat of Brigadier Surinder Singh, the brigade commander who was sacked by the then army Chief, General V.P. Malik. Even as the hills and mountains were being contested with the lives of Indian soldiers, a parallel war was being fought by the two parties, which extended beyond the termination of hostilities – the Congress taking up legal cudgels on behalf of Singh. Not only was the border skirmish severely politicised, but the spat between Malik and Singh also got coloured as a battle between the government and the opposition. It was bad for the morale of the army.

There is every likelihood of a repeat of a Kargil-like post-surgical strike electoral skirmish between the BJP and the opposition in the states going for elections, except possibly Manipur. The BJP is determined to extract maximum mileage from what it has showcased as the Modi government’s historic decision, surgical strikes into Pakistan, which was the first time any government had taken responsibility for the operations. The Congress will contend that under its charge the army had carried out similar operations but these were kept under wraps.

The bone of contention, though, will be that despite claims to the contrary, terrorism has not ended and attacks after the surgical strikes have continued. The electoral battles with posters featuring army personnel at the heart of the operations, including those decorated on Republic Day, will become objects of a tug of war. One hopes that the Election Commission (EC) will belatedly place an embargo on using pictures of army personnel associated with surgical strikes and prohibit tom-tomming their success to attract votes. It will unnecessarily unravel the secrecy of operations and lead to political mud-slinging, to the detriment of the honour and sanctity of the special forces. It is true that the target-specific multiple, shallow strikes across the LoC were modest in achievements, given the riders of no own casualties and being non-escalatory. That was the reason Lieutenant General Ranbir Singh, soon after troops had returned to their bases, informed his counterpart that the operations were not against the Pakistan army but targeted terrorist launchpads.

A ‘hands-off-surgical-strikes’ during the election campaigns would have the added benefit of not drawing the Pakistan army and the deep state into the ring, given that the first announcement of the Pakistan army chief, Bajwa, was that he will try to keep the LoC quiet. That promise has been kept after a full five months of unabated cross-LoC violence last year. By ring-fencing Pakistan and the surgical strikes, there is every likelihood of the Composite Bilateral Dialogue resuming after the elections, a full four and a half years after the conversations were suspended following the beheading of Naik Hem Raj in January 2013. It is, therefore, unwise on the part of the political leadership to piggyback on the army for victory in the elections when the risks of politicising military operations are high. The EC should draw suitable red lines to keep the army out of electoral battles, letting them keep their powder dry for the real war. The government should conduct deep surgical strikes against Delhi’s parliament, which seldom functions and where 30% of the members have one or more cases of murder, rape, kidnapping and dacoity registered against them.

In recent weeks, much has been written about the likely politicisation of the army by supersession of two lieutenant generals in appointing General Bipin Rawat as the new chief of army staff. Seventy years on, the Indian army is no more or less politicised than it was at the time of independence, when a perfectly apolitical, secular and professional British Indian army converted into the Indian army under political control of Indian civilian leadership. The army has weathered a political and military crisis in the 1960s in the high Himalayas, faced turbulence in the ranks after Operation Blue Star in the Golden Temple in 1984 and faced serious indiscipline during General V.K. Singh’s tenure. Other than these brief periods of disquiet, there has been no politicisation of the army despite decades of its deep involvement in internal stability operations in aid to civil authority as part of nation building. That the army has not appropriated any political shine is a tribute to its sound apolitical foundations inspite of periodic provocations and apathy, like progressive dilution of its status vis-a-vis other all-India civil and police services, civilian bureaucratic cockiness, inadequate defence Budgets and failure in implementing fundamental defence reforms mainly due to ill-founded fears of a military take-over. The government should not take the army/military’s implicit acceptance of civilian control for granted. Officers and soldiers are today politically more aware of the environment and their constitutional role. The political class and elected governments cannot substitute the legitimate aspirations and needs of the military with mere lip service and emotional gestures like tying rakhis at Siachen and sending sandesh to soldiers.

The government taking credit for surgical strikes is in itself questionable, when it is linked to the RSS training of Parrikar. This year’s defence Budget is a damp squib and flies in the face of Rawat reviving the necessity for two-front war and reliance on cold start doctrine. The political class has convinced itself there will be no war, but the conventional deterrence already below par will become ineffective, especially against China. Revelling in surgical strikes is living in cuckooland. Drawing political capital is a high-risk enterprise. It is surprising the EC is not seized with the clear and present danger of politicising the surgical strikes.

Ashok K. Mehta, a major general, is a founding member of the erstwhile Defence Planning Staff now the Integrated Defence Staff.