Thursday, 6 December 2018 
Contextualising the army chief's news making

Contextualising the army chief’s news making

The army chief, General Bipin Rawat, has taken to an innovative means to get the army’s position across figuring in the media often to voice his views on national security. While a charitable explanation is that the deficit in the system that keeps him out of the policy loop compels him to use the media for conveying the army’s position, a skeptical position is that he is being used as a cat’s paw by the national security establishment. .
On the first, an instance is in his voicing reservations in the run up in May to the suspension of operations in Kashmir when he said, “But who will guarantee that there won’t be fire at our men, at our vehicles? Who will guarantee that policemen, political workers, our men returning home on leave aren’t attacked, aren’t killed?”
Not having a forum for conveying such a position is not an excuse to go public. Reportedly the ceasefire initiative was that of the home minister. For the army chief to question it was to play bureaucratic politics. With the constitutional scheme having the home ministry as lead on internal security, it is improper for the military to buck it publicly.
However, the current army chief is considerably advantaged in having his view heard since he was handpicked for the chair. Reports then had it that his elevation owed in part to an ‘ease of working with’ calculus, with the national security adviser being acquainted with him in their interaction over the surgical strikes on the Myanmar border, forerunner to the more famous ones on the line of control.
This brings up the second explanation. Is the chief being deployed to give voice to the position of the national security establishment?
The latest controversial remark of the chief has been on India-Pakistan relations in which while talking to the media on the sidelines of the passing out parade of the National Defence Academy, he said, "If they (Pakistan) have to stay together with India, then they have to develop as a secular state."
In his statement on Pakistan, the army chief has effectively shifted the goal posts on peace overtures to Pakistan. The time-tested Indian position voiced most recently by the foreign minister while rejecting the possibility of Indian attendance at the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit in Islamabad is that Pakistan must first end terrorism from its soil directed at India.
Willy-nilly the army chief has added another rather wishful one, a secular Pakistan as a precursor to closer India-Pakistan ties. While reminiscent of the democratic peace thesis, in which democratic neighbours are peaceable, the chief has made a new contribution to international relations theory that is patently outside of the known realm of his expertise. Since this is an area of foreign policy outside his remit, the chief’s venturing into uncharted territory can only be because he has been given a long rope.
In a government that has acquired a reputation for centralization and under a national security adviser known for hands-on approach, this leeway for the army chief cannot be on account of absent mindedness on part of national security minders. That leaves the possibility of deliberate delegation, for the reason the army chief can be relied on to voice the party line.
It is not the chief’s job to be publicist for the national security system. He needs reminding that in the current administration the national security apparatus appears answerable beyond the democratic veneer to right wing formations.
The media may bait him for sound bites and his doctorate in media studies may lend him confidence to court them. controversy. There is an underside to this.
Take the army chief’s off-the-cuff remarks at a speaking engagement. The army chief has let on that he is willing to deploy armed drones in prosecution of India’s counter to Pakistan’s (proxy) war in Kashmir but a possible backlash from public opinion and the international community has stayed his hand. It was only in answer to a clarification that he was being asked if drones had any utility externally, that the chief went on to say that the same problem of collateral damage restricted their employment on the other side of the Line of Control.
The army chief seemed to suggest that should the public be ready to find that collateral damage acceptable then it would be fine to use weaponized drones, quite like – in his view - the Israelis do against the Hamas. The chief referenced the public reaction to the hardline of security forces taking on stone throwers to suggest that public opinion may be averse to use of weaponized drones. He was alluding to the flak he received from the liberal commentariat when he had suggested that stone throwers were liable to be taken as ‘over-ground workers’ and tackled accordingly by his troops.
This is concerning. The army chief, who was selected for his counter insurgency expertise acquired from extensive service in Kashmir and the North East, appears unable to see that India needs to respond differently to militancy involving own people than Israel and the United States - the other state using drones extensively - which use drones offensively in an imperial context against non-citizens.
There is one good coming out from the chief shooting from the hip. The army chief, in his representational function as an institutional leader, not only voices but sets the institutional position. For him to find use of drone unproblematic shows up a dangerous tendency within the army.
The tendency led some 350 of its members to approach the Supreme Court to recognize the impunity from lodging of first information reports against army men when operating under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. In the event, the Supreme Court recently dismissed their plea. It also accounts for the army’s reservations, publicly voiced, over the mid-year ceasefire in Kashmir.
The tendency is symptomatic of a significant, less visible, area of damage that India’s unending insurgency commitment is causing. The army’s institutional culture appears to be changing. The experience of countering insurgency over three decades has diluted the liberal orientation of an army answering to a democratic polity.
The worry is that if the mainstream opinion in the mainland is manipulated by perception management and a complicit media into conceding the military greater latitude, permissive operations may result. The ongoing cultural nationalist inflexion in politics, collapse of the external and internal ‘Other’ into one, prevalence of fake news, prevailing populism and polarization, and incipient authoritarianism make this a plausible future.
The tendency is outcome of the subterranean effort on part of the right wing to suborn institutions. The army is no exception. It is subject to their attention through the social media and the conveyer belt of ideas routed through veterans with a leg in both camps, the right wing’s intellectual ecosystem and the military.
This is yet another reason for India to consider wrapping up its multiple insurgencies politically. The lesson of sixty years from the north east and thirty from Kashmir is that there is no military solution. There is an unseen cost being paid by the country, the good health of its military. If the military’s democratic ethic is itself under threat, the medicine would become increasingly less effective, calling in turn for more of the same, including escalation, such as in the call for the use of armed drones.
The army chief is a political ingénue and the army politically naïve. He enjoys the limelight, while the hardline gets aired for free and acquires respectability. While the army chief serves as his master’s voice currently, the aberration of the current chief’s practice of courting the media can end up a norm. While today’s chief may be manipulable, tomorrow’s may be less so. Thus, the chief’s courting of the limelight has one good, revealing what this spells for the military’s democratic ethic and civil-military relations.