The Chief has spoken; but is the Chief listening?
At an unspecified event at the United Services Institution of India (USI) - the haunt in New Delhi of retired generals fading away - the army chief, reportedly intoned, "The military should be somehow kept out of politics. Of late, we have been seeing that politicisation of the military has been taking place.” Though not elaborated in the media report, the observation was likely triggered by a query on the building of three foot over-bridges by the army in Mumbai at the location of the recent stampede at Elphinstone station that left 22 dead and 35 injured. Inspired by its earlier showing in New Delhi in the run up to the Commonwealth Games, when an under construction footbridge near the Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium collapsed, the army had taken up the gauntlet to assist Mumbai commuters when put to it by the defence minister in a visit to the site along with the Maharashtra chief minister and the railway minister.
At the time, it was unclear whether the army has been consulted prior for this assistance by the defence minister. In the event, it elicited considerable social media outpourings by veterans miffed at the call by the civil authorities on the army when there are sufficient resources with the civil administration – in this case the railways – to fight their own fires. Analogy was drawn to the period early in the Modi era when the army was tasked by the previous defence minister to put a pontoon bridge across the Yamuna in order that the Sri Sri Ravishankar’s yoga jamboree on the Yamuna riverbed could proceed.
Following Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcement at Elphinstone bridge, in the company of party stalwarts, the army chief dutifully took on the task, justifying it later as a public relations exercise useful for image building of the army. This is the second instance of Sitharaman’s proactivism in tapping the army in her short stay so far at the helm of the defence ministry. Early in her tenure, she had required the army to clean up the mess tourists leave behind in the mountains and high altitudes where they are deployed. In particular, this is in the pilgrimage belt along the upper reaches where the Ganges originates. The army clicked its heels and fell in line, with social media awash with photos of colonels taking to the broom – along with army wives. One such much-forwarded image was from Gulmarg, where presumably the army is deployed in tackling terrorists infiltrating into the Valley besides protecting the Line of the Control (LC).
This background suggests two possibilities behind the army chief’s cryptic remarks at the USI event (he reportedly did not elaborate). The first is that he was telling off his critics to lay off the army in their criticism of the army’s seemingly currying favour with its right wing overseers, the BJP government, by being more available than necessary to step up and fill the breach. The criticism has it that the BJP as part of its subversion either brazenly or by stealth of most national institutions, would unlikely leave the army alone. In light of the advance of cultural nationalism and constriction of liberal-secular space across the land, the army could not possibly escape the attention of the emerging ‘deep state’ in India. Critics have therefore been calling for greater self-regulation by the army in the civil-military domain, lest cultural nationalism contaminate its secularity and compromise it.
That this is the more likely possibility is visible from the chief going on to say, “I think we operate in a very secular environment. We have a very vibrant democracy where the military should stay far away from the polity." To him, there is little cause to be wary of the right wing dispensation. He is sanguine that the society remains unchanged. Nevertheless, as traditionally, the army needs to stay at a distance from the hurly burly world of democratic politics. At the event, he explained the army’s stepping up at Elphinstone as part of its aid-to-civil-authorities mandate, though leaving unclear as to how normal rush hour pedestrian commuting can be equated with natural disasters, for which the army can be tapped to lend a shoulder. Clearly, the army chief takes his words seriously of ‘stay(ing) far away from the polity,’ leaving him blind to the political lurch towards the right that India has taken over the past half-decade. Since more situational awareness is expected of an institutional head, he needs alerting to the reality of India today.
This ab-initio rules out the second possibility, that of the general tacitly cautioning his civilian political masters to keep a distance from the army. This is unlikely in light of the general being beholden to the dispensation for his surprising elevation to the appointment. The general’s public utterances since his controversial elevation to his position as chief have unfortunately impacted his credibility. His recent dilation on surgical strikes in Myanmar under his tutelage as corps commander in the North East – that were precursor to the ones in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir – were ill timed from point of view of the Gujarat polls. The ruling party can do without any ballast for its political fortunes.
The government has been at pains to distance itself from its supposedly weak-kneed predecessor. In this it has used every opportunity to demonstrate a muscular, martial, risk-taking and war ready India, be it against the Pakistanis in the surgical strikes of last year or the Chinese with the Doklam standoff. It has thereafter duly milked the opportunities for their political worth, such as using the halo from the surgical strikes to good effect in the consequential Uttar Pradesh polls.
Modi has most recently used the strained relations with Pakistan over the past two years to depict the Congress as in league with Muslims and Pakistanis to meddle in the Gujarat elections. Over the period, the army has kept Pakistan to the till along the LC, having reactivated it early in the BJP’s New Delhi tenure, and has through the year undertaken Operation All Out for cleaning up the Valley floor in a hark back by some two decades. The general was quick off the blocks early in his tenure to pull out the Cold Start file from the operations closet and wave it at Pakistan. The Cold Start doctrine reputedly is the conventional punishment up India’s sleeve in case of Pakistani trespass of India’s threshold of tolerance. Since this is the utilization of the army for its professional worth in line with national policy – albeit one propelled by domestic political purposes – the army cannot be averse to the professional opportunity it espies and the institutional spaces (such as budgets, seat at the policy table etc.) it opens up.
However, institutional leadership needs being wary of use of the national security card for political interests, in this case continuing friction with Pakistan enabling the political polarization within India for political gains by the ruling party. The ruling party has chosen its chief well, one who would plough a narrow professional furrow. The problem is that at the apex level of the military sensitivity to the political context of professional activity, including its internal political dimension, cannot be elided by clichés such as apolitical military. The military apex needs to be sufficiently clued up politically to detect that in the context of the times it needs to be porcupine-like to ward of unwanted political attention. The Chief needs to heed his own words.