September 7, 2011 4:12:48 pm
The last thing a columnist should do is begin an argument on an apologetic note, and certainly that is not what readers of National Interest have come to expect. But let this one be an exception, only because it concerns a group of the most honourable, most loved and admired Indians, our armed forces.
Therefore the apologetic note. This newspaper under this editor, and under the leadership of his eminently worthier predecessors, has stood by the armed forces as has no other. It has engaged, intellectually and professionally, with key issues concerning the armed forces, from the high strategy of war-fighting, to higher defence management, civil-military relations and even the benefits and welfare of professional soldiers. This newspaper’s commitment to the soldiers’ cause is also shared by its readers.
The finest examples of that commitment are the two war memorials that have been built, in Pune and Chandigarh, with contributions of nearly Rs 2 crore, raised entirely by the readers of The Indian Express and, indeed, members of its staff. And the logic behind that ambitious — and ultimately successful — fund collection drive was that our governments, or rather politicians, are much too cynical and self-centred to even extend such elementary courtesies to the armed forces as a proper memorial to their martyrs. This, when other democracies honour even who died in unpopular wars — the Vietnam war memorial in Washington is an example — and even animals, dogs, horses, camels who perished in war — see the British armed force’s touching “Animals in War” memorial, sculpted by David Backhouse, between Hyde Park and Park Lane in London.
It is because The Indian Express considers itself to be so much a soldier’s paper, and because of the kind of affection it has received from the armed forces over the decades, that it’s been traumatic for it to take a view of the ongoing tussle between the top brass and the Union cabinet that could be considered most unpopular — if you go by the evidence of so many SMS polls on TV channels and even on this newspaper’s front page. You ask the people of India to choose between the political class and the soldier, and the latter will win 95 to 5.
So, ask people if the brass was right in defying the cabinet’s authority, in a stunning first in the Republic’s history, over their grievances on the pay commission, and a very wide majority will say yes. Then ask why do they favour the military so overwhelmingly over the politicians, and they will tell you that it is because the soldiers are disciplined, loyal, put their nation before all else, respect their Constitution, are apolitical (unlike the Pakistanis), they follow the orders of their civilian governments, are so honourable, salt of the earth—all the things, the subtext is, the politicians aren’t. But read all this and then understand the import of what this trinity of chiefs has achieved over the past few weeks. The people of India love their armed forces for their discipline, respect for civilian authority and apolitical, professional tradition. But now, for the first time, these incumbents have stood in defiance of civil authority as no military chiefs have ever done in India’s history. And howsoever genuine their grievances over the pay commission — as they seem to be — they have set a precedent that future generations of Indians, and even their own successors in years to come, will come to regret. Their decision to not notify the cabinet order on the pay commission was unprecedented and shocking. True, they were cheered along by the increasingly vocal community of ex-servicemen, many of whom harbour long-standing, deep and justified suspicion of the bureaucracy, and who were in turn egged on by one campaigning TV channel, Times Now. They saw this pay commission as one more too-clever-by-half effort by the babus to push the military a peg or two lower in terms of both money and protocol. They weren’t entirely wrong. But was this — the three chiefs turning themselves into a group of defiant trade union heads — the only way to handle it?
The brass may now think they have won a famous victory, with a very weak government conceding most of their demands. But today they do not see the damage they have done in the process to their own fantastic tradition and institutions. The soldier’s usual contempt for the political and bureaucratic classes is not entirely misplaced. They are all the terrible things the soldiers believe them to be: cynical, scheming, vindictive and so on. And by this incredible public show of defiance they have exposed more than their flanks to future assaults from those two classes the moment a stronger government, a half-way effective raksha mantri step in. Soon enough, there will be a civilian riposte, and unfortunately it could take away from the armed forces and their future chiefs some of the autonomy in decision-making, even small purchasing powers, that they have won in tiny parcels in a six-decade war of attrition. This pay commission episode will now be invoked by stronger governments, and certainly better defence ministers — as almost anybody would be after Antony — to “cut the brass to size” with the argument, “remember how they behaved over that pay commission? And it wasn’t even Thimayya, Manekshaw, Sundarji, P.C. Lal or Tahiliani.” The curse of this pay commission will hang over South Block for a very long time, until the emergence of some inspirational trinity of chiefs and, even more importantly, a visionary, strong defence minister, who can somehow signal a new beginning.
You can speculate forever on what drove the chiefs to this. Was it just the pent-up frustration over what they see as victimisation by scheming babus over the years? Was it the relentless instigation by a very vocal ex-servicemen’s lobby? Or was it lack of faith — even communication — with their current political leadership? Or was it a combination of the three, topped with the current leadership’s utterly shocking inability to either comfort them, or to even keep them under reasonable discipline?
Which makes us revisit the argument on whether this is a strong, a weak, or the weakest government in India’s history — as L.K. Advani says all the time, and gets the Congress’s backs up. Maybe there are sections of this government that are not quite so weak or incompetent as some of the NDA’s were. But this government’s management of the defence ministry has now begun to look as bad, if not worse, than that of its home ministry. A.K. Antony’s handling of the pay commission issue has been pusillanimous to say the least. As defence minister, he should have fought for his armed forces and got them their due from the pay commission in the first place. But, having failed to do so, he absent-mindedly countenanced trade union-like activity within his brass. He agreed to accept a memorandum from the three chiefs together, and somebody even invited TV cameras while he did so. Some platitudes were spoken, and the entire country got the impression that the soldiers had been done in by the pay commission and now the three chiefs and their minister were all fighting for them. This, I am afraid, smacked of some kind of “industrial action” rather than the subtle, skilled management that our higher defence establishment demands. Its consequences will be far-reaching and long-lasting and could leave the institution of our apolitical military seriously dented.
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