The relationship between the Indian Army and Indian democracy might be entering new and unchartered waters. The ethical and constitutional issues in the incident involving Major Nitin Leetul Gogoi using a human shield have been discussed well by two columns (‘Why Major Gogoi is wrong’, by Omar Abdullah, IE, May 24, here and ‘A blemished medal’, by Praveen Swami, IE, May 25 here). But there is a larger institutional transformation underway that does not bode well, either for democracy or the army. A professional army needs three things: Broad social legitimacy where the worth and excellence of the institution is recognised; a clear set of political goals and a legal framework within which it can operate; and the right degree of professional autonomy, where it can exercise judgment based on the highest professional standards. The “human shield” crisis has revealed that all three are under more threat than we recognised.
The threat emanates from an unlikely source. Whether we like it or not, we live in an age of spectacle, where the dominant political idiom is a seemingly unmediated conversation with the public. It used to be that you were nobody if you did not have money or power; now, that is sometimes not necessary, and often, it is not sufficient. Politics has become a frenzied contest over unmediated representation, with an impatience for all institutions and processes. But that has also inflected other institutions. Parts of many institutions, including the judiciary and bureaucracy, have also convinced themselves that merely doing their professional jobs will not get them social legitimacy or visibility. Something else, some splash, was required. In boring terminology, this is called communication. But underlying it is a shift in the norms of social legitimacy. You are nobody if you have not trended. This is disfiguring many institutions.
The army is becoming a double victim of this. There is no doubt about the army’s social legitimacy. It has also had to do our dirty work for us. But there is a growing sense in the army that it was being socially marginalised. In quotidian terms, everything from the OROP, to shifting norms of social acclaim, convinced many in the army that it was being given short shrift. Second, there always have been, and should be, people who ask questions of the army. And a professional army will answer them professionally. If it is institutionally strong, it can remind people that it even court-martials officers for wrongful killing, as it did after the Machil incident.
But those who really question the army are always politically insignificant. Yet, the media has managed to create the impression that the biggest challenge the Indian Army faces is assorted human rights activists out of control. This is patent nonsense. But the society of spectacle has exaggerated the suspicion under which the army operates; it has created imaginary internal enemies for the Indian Army.
The widespread support for Major Gogoi, both inside and outside the army, has little to do with operational considerations or the wisdom of the action. Instead, the issue has become a symbol of standing up for the army. In this sense, the army is being drawn into a vortex where a quiet, dignified and assumed acknowledgment of its professionalism will no longer be enough. It will constantly have to be granted its place in a society of spectacle. Chasing media phantoms disfigured other institutions. There is a danger this rot can afflict the army as well. It may begin to measure its social legitimacy in a different way.
Two other things are drawing the army into this vortex. The first is the giving in to the need for cutting short processes. Just as a practical matter, the controversy was dying down; there was a process on to assess the incident. The tearing hurry in which the commendation to Major Gogoi was issued undermines the credibility of its processes. It created the impression that the army was not thinking professionally. It was thinking more about teaching its supposed media critics a lesson.
But most importantly, war is becoming a spectacle as well. From Uri to the recent cross-border firings to destroy Pakistani bunker posts, the circulation of videos prompts the question: Who are you trying to convince? How effective you are will be judged by whether you achieve your goals of a lasting, secure peace. But this TV war will be a disaster for the army for three reasons. It will make achieving objectives more difficult. It is not that operations or cross-border firing were not done before. But we had the good sense to understand that giving the adversary the option of a quiet way out is also part of sensible strategy. After a routine operation, the adversary may or may not escalate; after a publicised operation, he will have only one option: To escalate.
TV wars give a much distorted picture of war. The Americans landed in the quagmires they did in Iraq because generations of political elites, post-Vietnam, began to internalise the fantasy that war was like a video game. It created a set of false expectations of what the means at the disposal of the army could achieve. Does the army really want the public to be asking in a frenzied way, “Under X government, you fired at bunkers, why are you not firing now?” “If Major Gogoi’s tactic was really so well-judged, and within the law, why does not the army use it more?” It is shocking how much the latter question is being asked. The army’s professional autonomy cannot be maintained if there is an expectation that it will constantly produce war videos.
The spectacle of those operations will distort the political goals we set for the army. It may create operational pressures of the kind it will find it hard to withstand. Finally, the army will always run up against the problem of incompatible constituencies. The entire effort behind the Major Gogoi operation seems to have been premised upon the idea that it is India that needs to be shown that the army can stand up for its own. But surely, it is in the army’s interest to win over Kashmiris, a constituency this one act has alienated even more.
Civil-military relations are not just about the government and the army. They are fundamentally mediated through the public. The form of that mediation has a huge impact on the army. The current form of mediation is placing spectacle at front and centre. The army is facing a tough mob in front of it; but it has even more to fear in the long run from the mob behind it, egging it on.