Should Army be kept out of politics?

BY ARUN PRAKASH
‘Democracy demands forces be apolitical’

Egregious neglect of India’s security by successive governments has been a perennial target of censure by commentators for decades. Independent India’s politicians considered this matter unworthy of their time because, so far, it was not a ‘vote-catching’ issue for a public preoccupied with roti, kapda, makan and lately, jobs and agrarian distress. Political survival their priority, politicians were happy to leave the higher management of defence and security almost entirely to the bureaucracy and devote themselves to electioneering.

But, the past few months have seen a dramatic shift, with national security taking centre stage in election rhetoric. Since party manifestos provide little reassurance, it remains to be seen whether the show of concern for national security is genuine and enduring or merely a vote-garnering device. Having been thrust into the spotlight, the military must find itself puzzled and discomfited; given decades of political neglect and the current state of civil-military relations.


The crux of civil-military relations, universally, is to ensure that soldiers remain in their barracks and refrain from interfering or participating in domestic politics and governance. This is best achieved by implementing ‘civilian control’ of the forces, exercised directly by elected representatives. Unfortunately, this principle was subverted post-independence. According to American scholar George Tanham, “The role and status accorded to the military, in India, is a clear manifestation of an unbalanced civil-military equation.” He traces its roots to prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s pacifism and an anti-military attitude. Nehru also nurtured a phobia of military coups and neglected the military, downgrading its leadership vis-a-vis the police and civil servants.

This Nehruvian legacy has survived successive regimes. Regardless of the party in power, national security has stayed at the bottom of priority lists and the military leadership continues to be deliberately excluded from decision-making. Reforms have been stalled and military modernisation hindered by meagre budgets and a languid bureaucracy.

The past five years have, however, seen the emergence, of some new and seemingly contradictory phenomena. On one hand, the process of downgrading the status of the armed forces has accelerated, overturning the well-established relativities with the bureaucracy, police forces and even subordinate services, not just embarrassing the military but also hitting morale and operational effectiveness. At the same time, hints of political patronage have served to unsettle the officer corps with misgivings about quid pro quo bargains being struck.

The most serious development, however, relates to the assumption of ownership and credit for military operations and their inclusion in election campaigning by political parties.

Customarily, military operations–especially those by the Special Forces–speak for themselves and are rarely publicised. While governments may legitimately take credit for ordering military operations, it is when political parties brazenly exploit them for votes and personal aggrandisement that the plot starts unravelling.

The puerile and ill-informed political and media debate about the 2016 cross-border raids and the February 2019 air strikes not only trivialised serious issues but also diluted the message of punitive-deterrence that India intended to convey. Equally damaging was the public perception that serving officers were making statements to comply with a ‘party line’.

Our professional and, so far, apolitical military serves the Constitution through obedience to democratically elected civilian office-holders, without showing preference for any political party or taking partisan positions. Internalised by the Indian military, this principle is a pillar of India’s democratic system and has ensured a peaceful transfer of power after each general election. A politicised military, loyal to one political party or the other, could well start participating in partisan politics. Appropriation of military achievements by politicians could trigger a reverse process, whereby ambitious generals start initiating military operations to please politicians–a frightening possibility.

As far as veterans are concerned, they have the same rights and privileges as private citizens. They may serve with think tanks, engage in public debate and even contribute military expertise to political campaigns. But, they need to remain conscious of two facts: the Constitution accords them the privilege of using military ranks in perpetuity and a strong umbilical cord connects them to serving soldiers. So, when bemedalled veterans, sporting star-studded caps, are seen saluting or genuflecting before politicians, they send a message of subservience that runs contrary to our proud martial tradition.

Similarly, political parties, eagerly enlisting veterans, without a long-enough cooling period, cannot but send negative signals to serving personnel about the benefits of acquiring political ‘connections’ early in one’s career.

For the health and survival of the Indian democracy, it is vital to keep our fine military apolitical and non-partisan. Exploiting the military for fleeting political advantage carries the real risk of creating a Praetorian monster in our midst.

(Admiral Arun Prakash (retired) is a former navy chief)
‘National security is about politics’
Sushant Sareen

If we accept the Clausewitzian dictum that “war is the continuation of politics by other means”, then clearly national security cannot be divorced from politics. Those clucking their disapproval and behaving as though some great calamity has befallen India because national security is now very much an election issue, are being disingenuous when they seek to keep national security out of the ambit of competitive politics. National security has always been part of national politics. What has changed is only the way this issue is now playing out in the public domain.

In the past, public discussions on national security were esoteric, dominated by a small group of elites who operated within their own echo chamber. This was in part possible because it was so much easier to control the debate — newspapers, radio and TV could and did shun voices that didn’t quite conform to the ‘consensus’ they peddled. Therefore, in spite of the fact that the street always had a view, it was haughtily ignored by those who framed, analysed and implemented national security.

Today, the street can no longer be ignored because it has now got the tools to make itself heard. And while the elite would like to continue to cut out this ‘noise’, the politician is forced to respond to the vocal, visible and vehement views of the street on national security. The democratisation of the policy discourse has therefore led to the politicisation of defence, security and foreign policy in ways that have not been seen before.

No savvy politician will ever let go of any opportunity to use national security to enhance his or her political capital. Even if certain politicians eschew the temptation to cash in on their palpable success in the domain of national security, their opponents are unlikely to resist the temptation to exploit any failure in this field. This means that even if Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his acolytes hadn’t milked or, more appropriately, done the chest thumping after the 2016 “surgical strikes” or the 2019 Balakot air strikes, his opponents would have torn him apart had anything gone wrong.

In a political setting where the political executive calls the shots on issues of war and peace and the armed forces follow the orders and the policy laid down by the political leadership, it is the politician who will get the credit and the accolades when things work out, and face the heat when they don’t.

This means that even if national security isn’t politicised by one side, it will be by the other. One primary reason why Sardar Patel is adulated is because of how he fused the nation by amalgamating the Princely States and taking strong action in Junagarh and Hyderabad. Had the ‘police action’ in Hyderabad gone wrong, would Patel still be a revered figure? Wasn’t Jawaharlal Nehru pilloried for the 1962 disaster even though a year earlier when Goa was annexed he basked in the glory of that event?

During the Kargil war in 1999, the Congress party lampooned the Vajpayee government by floating a hot air balloon of a bus turned upside down, mocking the Prime Minister’s Sada-e-Sarhad diplomacy. That India kicked out the Pakistanis from Kargil turned the tables and allowed the BJP to romp home in the elections later that year. Similarly, during the Doklam crisis, didn’t the Opposition take constant potshots at Prime Minister Modi, mocking his ‘jhoola diplomacy’ with the Chinese president? Wasn’t that politicisation of national security?

Suffice to say that even though national security has always been a political issue and has had a play in elections, the ones who complain the loudest are those who are on the receiving end of this issue. That’s either because they have failed on this front, or because their opponents have succeeded in capturing and monopolising the topic.

There is of course some heartburn over what is being called the politicisation of the armed forces. But this again is nothing new. There was a time when the armed forces were seen as loyalists of the grand old party.

Today it appears the shoe is on the other foot and a large part of the soldiery tends to see the BJP as articulating its thinking much more robustly than any other party. As long as the politicisation doesn’t interfere with or disturb the internal coherence and chain of command of the army, it should be seen as nothing more than an outreach to an important constituency. After all, soldiers and their families are also voters.

(Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation)

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