PM, Def Min Missing Army Day Event Sends Wrong Signal Before R-Day
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In an unprecedented development with some curious overtones, the Army Day reception hosted by Army Chief General Bipin Rawat on Monday, 15 January, saw a visible political void with the absence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman at the annual event. The President, the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, was all alone at 4 Rajaji Marg, as the Vice-President was not present either.
Absence is Unprecedented
Many senior veterans and former service chiefs that one spoke to were unanimous in expressing their deep disappointment and anguish at this turn of events and noted that as much as they can recall, such a void – where the VP, the PM and the RM ‘skipped’ an Army Day reception – was never witnessed before. One of them wryly noted that this pattern of disparaging the military by the Modi government has now become par for the course.
Examples include the fact that Prime Minister Modi spent a whole day with the DGs of police while he is reported not to have so far had any meaningful personal interaction with the three service chiefs, except at the annual commanders’ conferences, or select ceremonial events. The manner in which senior Cabinet minister Nitin Gadkari ticked off the Navy at a public event in Mumbai and made some invalid and almost bizarre assertions about who is the real ‘government’ in the current dispensation was also highlighted.
Strain in Harmonious Civil-Military Relationship
The strongly held perception is that Modi cares little for the fauji, except to seek electoral advantage or political mileage where possible. This is a disturbing development, for the erosion of that fine institutional ozone layer equivalent that ensures appropriate civil-military equipoise in a democracy can be irreparably damaged by the feckless actions of the current political leadership.
The curious aspect of the PM and the RM skipping the Army Day reception is that a majority of print-media outlets chose to ignore what was clearly ‘the story’ of the evening on Rajaji Marg. Self-regulation and a certain reticence to report any news-worthy development that is critical of the prime minister is becoming the norm in Delhi. This gap is, however, being filled – not always responsibly – by web and social media speculation.
The reason being advanced for the absence of the PM and the RM (in whispers) is the scheduling challenges with the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. This is untenable. Prime Minister Modi has demonstrated considerable determination to do what he wants and protocol has been broken or new norms implemented where he felt the need to do so.
Social media has pointed out that Prime Minister Modi did not attend the Navy Day reception in December last year, since the Gujarat elections were of higher priority and for the record, he was unable to attend the Air Force day reception in October as well. This is an odd hat-trick for an Indian prime minister.
Missing the Army Day Event Sends Ambiguous Signals
The perception gaining ground is that despite the public articulation by the prime minister about the military, its modernisation and the welfare of the fauji – it is mere lip-service coupled with a certain image of earnestness cultivated in the public domain.
The reality leading to such perception must be reviewed by the prime minister and his trusted advisers – those who are able to speak truth in national interest. If the prime minister is the first among equals, who in the current Cabinet can take him aside and say: ‘Naren bhai, yeh galat fahmi door kariye ; rashtriya hith main nahi hain (Narendra bhai, please remove these apprehensions, it’s not in the national interest)’?
The absence of the RM Nirmala Sitharaman is also intriguing. Again, social media has splashed images of the minister meeting representatives from a chamber of commerce and while one is not aware of the veracity or the time overlap – the fact that the RM was not present to receive the President at a major annual event for the Indian Army has led to undesirable speculation.
Is this absence a complex signal or message to admonish the Army or its chief? Is this messaging aimed at the military as an institution to demonstrate civilian/police supremacy? The conjecture points to shabby political hubris that betides ill for India – more so in the run-up to the Republic Day when the normative spirit and vitality of Indian democracy will be venerated.
(The writer is a leading expert on strategic affairs. He is currently Director, Society for Policy Studies. He can be reached @theUdayB. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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