The Coming Politicisation of the Military
With national security ushered to a front seat at election time by a prime minister seeking reelection, the threat of politicization of the military has loomed large. The (ab)use of military achievement as campaign props by the ruling party led military veterans to petition the President of India that he caution offenders.
Some signatories reportedly backtracked; a report - in turn - challenged by the petition initiators, claiming that it was put out by a media organization at the behest of the ruling party. One air marshal wrote of why he thought the inclusion of a reference to ‘secular’ in the missive amounted to a bias against a particular political party, which he said led to him not signing up.
Apparently, there is disquiet among military veterans in the manner the ruling party in particular has usurped national security and the military’s contribution to its electoral ends. They claim to have given voice to the military miffed by the manner votes are sought on the back of military action and lives.
Even if the government understandably takes credit for its stewardship of the defence sector, the refrain is that national security showing is nationally-owned and - therefore - not one to be appropriated for parochial political purposes.
The military has been party to this to an extent.
The Air Force has repeatedly intervened to present a well-worn case that the Rafale is a fine aircraft, knowing fully that the controversy is not about the air craft’s capability in first place. It has - yet again repeatedly – stoked the legitimate controversy surrounding the ‘result’ of the Balakot aerial attack by unnecessarily referring to it. On the Naushera points-scoring with Pakistan, it has trotted-out evidence of downing an F-16.
All tend to play into the hands of the ruling party, busy diverting voter attention from consequential issues of joblessness, arbitrary decision making etc.
The army in wake of Pulwama has on three occasions at least let it be known it is robustly pushing back terrorism, trotting out statistics on terrorists killed (militant Kashmiri youth for most part), with the general in Badami Bagh much in the press. This feeds in timely into the ruling party nation-wide rhetoric of being strong on defence and works to its favour in narrowly chasing votes south of the Pir Panjals.
The brass cannot be taken as a political ingénue. It is well aware of the day’s headlines. There is no cause to suspect a situational awareness deficit in the year long hiatus from soldiering the brass is provisioned at Raksha Bhawan immediately prior to stepping up to the rank. That it has nevertheless chosen to tread where it should not implies it has been put to it.
From where such pressure originates can easily be divined. The national security establishment is headed by Ajit Doval, who fired the first shot of the campaign by going beyond his brief as a government official in calling for a strong government for another ten years. The Pulwama aftermath provided an opportunity to showcase such a government (never mind that miscued choreography led to the proverbial slip by his political principal over the relationship of nuclear weapons and Diwali).
There are three possibilities.
The first is if the services want to paper over their showing that has come under some valid questioning. This is understandable, mitigating their media interventions somewhat.
The second is a deficit of moral courage in the brass.
Or third, there is a likemindedness with its national security supervisors. The former is but a step away from the latter. Neither is edifying and spell of politicization, incipient (in case of lack of moral fibre) or underway (in case of perspective sharing).
This is a significant apprehension worth voicing since polls are underway. If the situation is at such a pass at five year mark of this regime, what could happen if it is given another lease?
There are four referents for a military’s primary loyalty: the Constitution represented by the president; the government stewarded by a cabinet accountable to the parliament; a political leader vesting authority in his person; and the ‘nation’, comprising the people. Politicisation is when the military fails to arrive at the right choice of or balance between the four.
It is easy to spot politicization in the third case, of personalisation of authority. Even so it cannot be ruled out as a prospective downhill destination five years on. There are bhakts in the military, with a social media line to bhakts amongst veterans. There are authoritarian tendencies in the system, on display in decision making ranging from demonetization to the Balakot strike and and a personality cult centering on a potential Hindu-hriday samrat or Loh Purush II. With deep-selection of chiefs now normalised, it is unlikely that strong leadership can emerge to decelerate such an outcome.
Of the second – subservience to the government - there has been some reservation. The military’s conservative instincts make it liable to fall easily behind a conservative government rather than march to a discordant tune of a coalition. The military’s position on Siachen and the withdrawal of the armed forces special powers act were seen as bucking a government inclined to a review. The self-valuation of a professional position on such matters, almost amounting to pre-empting the government and exercising of veto, suggests confusion in the military between the two primary loyalty referents: the Constitution or the government.
On the ‘nation’ as referent, the notion is prevalent. It found expression sometime late last century when a book launch by a general of his diary on Kashmir was cancelled by a last minute fiat. The book had within it the claim that the nation preceded revolving-door governments in the loyalty stakes of the military. This is of a piece with the confusion universally in all militaries on this score. General MacArthur was famously dismissed at the height of his career for holding such a view.
Five years on the extreme right wing ideology would have contaminated institutions and society; enough to have the military uncritically believe that it belongs to a ‘nation’ defined in majoritarian terms. Like a frog in slow-boiling water, the military will likely miss the shift from civic nationalism to ethnic majoritarianism. Consequently, its inability to foreground the first – its Constitutional loyalty – would lend its institutional weight to a seemingly democratic Constitutional coup.
Clarity can be expected to attend the first – loyalty to the State as represented by the flag and Constitution. This explains the foot-dragging (‘shirking’ in Peter Feaver coined civil-military terminology) when its inclination is not aligned with that of a government.
A convergence in the other three referents – an autocratic, populist government – could paper over the tectonic shifts away from the Constitutional ideals – largely subterranean at present. Ironically, standing inert under the circumstance would amount to politicization, as much as standing tall to deter the same.
This regime at its five year mark asks for votes on its showing along the visible spectrum of national security. Instead, the unremarked on underside of national security - explicated here - is by far more consequential.