Friday, 27 December 2019
From General Rawat’s latest verbal assault on liberal sensibilities, the answer to the question in the title is unclear. He is reported to have made adverse observations on the leadership of the counter Citizenship Amendment Act agitations, intoning that resort to violence and arson is an inappropriate direction for leaders to take their followers. He was presumably referring to student and political leaders who are spear heading the agitations across the country. He has received across the board criticism for his pains.
Since this is not the first foray by the general into politics, it bears wondering as to where his gumption comes from. Clearly he has a sense of impunity that can only be result of his being hand in glove with his civilian masters. This is borne out by his care in always speaking in their favour, be it in his earlier interventions on Kashmir related issues or, once famously, his take on a political party in Assam. Whether he exercises his own volition or he is his master’s voice is moot, since both possibilities are calamitous. If the former, then it is military meddling in politics and, if the latter it is politicisation of the military.
In the present case, there may be more pressing personal reason. He may be reminding powers that be that he is still around to take over as the first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). Now if only they would sign off over the next four days before he retires on the appointment shortlist being shepherded through the bureaucracy by his ethnic kin, the national security adviser, Ajit Doval.
Alternatively, the explanation could well be simpler: he is habituated to putting his foot in the mouth. Doing so at this juncture only helps him land a sinecure in case he misses the CDS boat. His predecessor managed an ambassadorship in a nondescript island that would otherwise have been tenanted by a joint secretary level diplomat. Bipin Rawat’s ingratiating himself with the regime by periodic parochial political statements through his three years as head of the army positions him well for a larger, if inconsequential country.
An empathetic explanation is that he has been ordered to do so, and, disciplined soldier that he is, has only discharged his obligation of obedience to his civilian masters. Since internal security is part of the military’s remit as its secondary responsibility, he has a duty to preempt its worsening. The frontline internal security force, its paramilitary, is stuck in Kashmir. The armed police are drawing flak for being obviously communal. The military too hit the streets early on in flag marches in the North East.
In case the situation deteriorates further, and there is no guarantee it won’t in light of the ruling party stakes in the West Bengal elections coming up next year, then the army may willy nilly be sucked in. An early indicator of this apprehension was statement of the eastern army commander extolling the Citizenship Amendment Act as yet another instance of hard-nosed decision making by this regime. His headquarters at Kolkata would then be the hub for firefighting in case West Bengal were to go down the path of agitations.
Precedence has it that India has been very sensitive to security in West Bengal. Its intervention, initially by the intelligence and military in a proxy war and then by the military in an ostensibly humanitarian intervention in East Bengal, was triggered inter alia by the fear that unsettled conditions in Bengal could be exacerbated by Maoists, who were rather active then. Even today, Maoists are close at hand in the jungles, having gotten as close as Junglemahal as recently as early this decade. Besides, agitations involving Muslims could witness jihadi penetration. A jihaid-Maoist combine could prove the proverbial perfect storm.
Therefore, preemptive discrediting of the agitations before they intensify and spread may have been considered necessary. This is a possible rationale for the army chief to have his say. Whats App University has already put out its latest research that Bangladeshi Muslim illegal immigrants trooped up to Lucknow clandestinely and are responsible for the mayhem that prompted Ajay Mohan Bisht, aka Yogi Adityanath, to take tough action.
Arguably, this is to stretch the security rationale somewhat. But without such a sympathetic stretch it is implausible that the army chief has any role in commenting on the counter CAA agitations currently ongoing. No wonder his latest mouthings have drawn swift umbrage of the doyen of the military old guard, Admiral Ramdas.
This implies a mundane explanation is more apt. The army chief is at his old game of political partisanship. The first salvo in this was fired off, as mentioned, by the general in Kolkata. Incidentally, the general in Kolkata is a regimental mate of the army chief. He was allowed to shoot his mouth off earlier too, having at election time intervened to back the ruling party’s case that there were no surgical strikes before the post Uri terror attack surgical strikes. He was then the military operations head. This bit of partisanship on his part in effect bust the Congress’ claim that it had conducted six such strikes in its time at the helm.
The controversy then went on to involve the northern army commander discrediting his predecessor at Udhampur, retired general Hooda. Since Hooda had undertaken to write up the Congress’ security doctrine, that informed its manifesto, he was seen as proximate to the Congress who needed to then be taken down. The government deployed the northern army commander for the errand, who dutifully, no doubt under orders from his chief, stepped up.
The foregoing shows up three generals as making political interventions in favour of the ruling party: the army chief and two army commanders. The army chief has been front runner for CDS post. The northern army commander was earlier in the lineup for army chief position, but has since been outpointed by the front runner, Naravane. Since the parameters for the CDS post include deep selection from among the senior three star brass from all three services, the northern army commander has his hat in the ring. Perhaps the eastern army commander also fancies his chances, since while the post has been sanctioned the incumbent has not been named as yet.
It is of a piece with the manner of roll out of its decisions by this regime. Recall the lines after demonetization, the commercial chaos after the GST implementation, the lock down in Kashmir after its demotion to a Delhi administered territory and the easily anticipated challenge met by CAA. More pertinently, note that there was no evidence of success at Balakot. Similarly there was no evidence of a downed F-16 to show after the Pakistani counter to Balakot. Instead, there were two Indian aircraft wreckages – one Mig 21 and a helicopter. Given this record of tripping up, it cannot but be expected to slip up on its CDS rollout.
Prime Minister took to stage at the Red Fort to announce the position. Since the parameters were not quite drawn up by then, the hard home work only got down since. This enabled the brass to get into a competition to show off their respective competence for the job. The now retired air chief was an early bird in this game in unnecessarily during election time trying to draw attention away from the procedural short cuts taken by the regime in its handling of the Rafale purchase. He fully well knew that the controversy had nothing to do with the efficacy of the Rafale but tricky conduits of campaign funding. That only the silent service, the Navy, has stayed away, aware that the odds were stacked against an admiral landing as the first CDS incumbent, only serves to prove the other contenders had CDS in their sights.
This unseemly advertisement by members of the brass of their amenability to the regime’s political and ideological position is fallout of the unnecessarily hasty announcement at Red Fort. Instead, the home work done – the mandate making was wrapped up last week with the CDS to head a department of military affairs in the defence ministry – the decision could well have waited for another grandstanding opportunity for the prime minister, perhaps till next Republic Day.
The CDS rollout has resulted in debasing of the uniform and the credibility that goes with it. The CDS thus can only have an inauspicious beginning. If any of the current day front runners are finally appointed, each could easily be viewed as a compromised choice, and especially so if it is General Bipin Rawat. On this count, it is best that his latest political intervention be taken as his swan song, lest the nation have to suffer another three years of his addiction to partisanship.