Two incidents, involving politicians and military officials in public, have been in the limelight in the past two months, both gaining visibility due to social media platforms. Both the countries are democracies from the British Commonwealth, which means that the two armies are also similar in their ethos, culture and norms to the Indian Army.
To recapitulate, the first incident happened in Canberra, Australia, where Chief of the Defence Force, Angus Campbell, tapped the defence minister, Christopher Pyne, and asked all the military officers present on the stage to step aside as the minister answered a political question from the Press. The second incident has to do with a video which went viral: It shows four British soldiers undertaking shooting practice in Kabul, using a photograph of Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, as a target. The photographs of various leaders were available with this group of soldiers for training as “guardian angels” — for close protection — and the incident caused a lot of outrage. An initial investigation reportedly failed to find any evidence of links to fascist or far-Right political groups, but the four paratroopers have been flown to Britain to face court-martial for breaking the army’s strict disciplinary code.
Meanwhile, here in India, the election campaign season is on and the Army is in the spotlight, forming a major part of the ruling party’s campaign agenda. Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, described the Indian Army as Modi’s army and got away with a mild rap on the knuckles from the Election Commission. Union minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi used the same phraseology a few days later and seems to have gotten away scot-free. Former Army chief and current Union minister, V K Singh went on record taking objection to anyone naming the Indian Army as “Modiji ki Sena”, but backtracked a few hours later.
As witnessed during the release of the ruling party’s poll manifesto, the major plank of Modi’s reelection campaign is a muscular stance on national security, particularly against Pakistan. It has been the cornerstone of his election campaign so far, despite a group of military veterans writing to the President to put an end to the politicisation of armed forces by political parties during the election campaign. Going by the evidence so far, that appeal is likely to fall on deaf ears with even the defence minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, criticising the appeal.
This is not the first time that the armed forces have been dragged into the spotlight during an election campaign. In 1999, the general elections happened in the aftermath of the Kargil war, where Vajpayee’s government was up for re-election after losing the vote of confidence. The then Army chief, General V P Malik, in his book Kargil: From Surprise to Victory, revealed that he complained to Vajpayee about the BJP’s election posters that featured the three military chiefs. Vajpayee ensured that it did not happen again.
Giving other instances of soldiers being used for electoral purposes by the BJP and its affiliates during that period, General Malik further noted that, “The armed forces were anguished because they were getting sucked into electoral politics as a result 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’.”
Times have changed since then. Two decades ago, a serving chief was forced to send the message — “Leave us alone” — but it is unlikely to be repeated by any of the service chiefs now. Even the military veterans arguing for the armed forces to remain apolitical are dragged into controversy, with the focus being shifted away from the real issue of shielding the army from party politics. This cavalier approach seems to suggest that some people are totally unmindful of the detrimental consequences of politicising the armed forces. They have willy-nilly forgotten that the armed forces have to be not just apolitical, they have to be seen as being above all kinds of party politics. The valour of our soldiers is not to be used to procure votes for any party.
The fundamental reasons for the armed forces staying away from politics is simple: It is reflective of the professionalism of the armed forces, developed over the past 72 years, and one of the norms underpinning our constitutional democracy. Dragging the armed forces into partisan politics will threaten military credibility and diminish the respect that they carry across all sections of society. It needs no reiteration but has to be said that the armed forces only serve the Constitution by following democratically elected civilian officials, without regard for which political party is in power, or what partisan positions are publicly hailed.
While military veterans are rightly concerned about maintaining the professionalism of our armed forces, citizens have to also look at its consequences for our democracy. As professional managers of violence, our armed forces are tasked to further a democratic government’s political aims externally. But influencing domestic politics is a taboo for them, for that would mean creating a military like that of Pakistan or Egypt. The armed forces would then become a political-economic actor that operates not only externally but also internally to protect its own political and economic interests. That would shift the delicate balance of power in a carefully crafted constitutional setup,which has served India adequately since Independence.
The dragging of the armed forces into electoral politics by the top leaders of the ruling party has thrown a grave challenge to our democratic institutions. All citizens can play their part by denouncing attempts to mobilise the military as a political actor. The armed forces must be preserved as an instrument of political power, not as a political end itself. That is the least we can do in the service of the nation.
This article first appeared in the print edition on April 17, 2019, under the title ‘The twain can’t meet’. Write to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.