Events in the past one year have brought the military, mainly the army, into the limelight for all the wrong reasons. While it has continued with its task of maintaining national security, dominating the Line of Control (LoC), and ensuring a near-normal environment in Kashmir, the army has faced criticism from many quarters, including its veterans and serving officials.
While the serving fraternity has mostly been silent, there have been occasional outbursts on the social media.
The veterans are aghast at the exploitation of the army for political ends, degradation attempts by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), manhandling of protesting veterans at Jantar Mantar, and lack of support from the army chief.
There are signs of discontent among those currently enrolled in the army, and a fear of being let down, with the government's unilateral actions of stopping entitled rations and lowering of status. As per service norms, the army chief has maintained a studied silence as he is bound by rules to support the government and avoid controversies.
The question arising is whether this is a deliberate attempt by the government to take advantage of the ‘rules of silence’ for those currently serving, while dividing the veteran community for its own political advantage?
Is this also the beginning of politicisation of the armed forces? It should be realised that it was Modi, who understood the value of the veterans, and thus began engaging with them in the hope of garnering votes. Thus began an era of promises, which remain unfulfilled till date.
How Did Army Come to Be Politicised?
Politicisation of the army began with the Rewari veteran rally, addressed by PM Modi prior to the last general elections. The presence of General VK Singh, a retired army chief, and a host of other known personalities on stage alongside Modi, raised hopes of granting the demand for ‘One Rank One Pension’ (OROP), and a belief that the government would support the armed forces in multiple ways.
However, with the passage of time, it became clear that government actions would be in the reverse, while Modi would continue seeking to engage with the armed forces personnel.
The pay commission under his government released its report degrading the stature of the armed forces, which the Finance Ministry accepted and even announced.
It led to an outrage within the armed forces, compelling service chiefs to openly reject government notification, forcing the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to intervene. The military pay commission was finally announced a year later, with some anomalies yet to be addressed.
Raising the OROP Flag
The OROP granted was contrary to the original definition as approved by the parliament, leading to a mass agitation, which hurt the government. Thus, the government attempted to either ignore it, sought quiet parleys with its leaders, establish media blackouts, and employed every means within its power to break its momentum, including discrediting the same in various forums.
The surgical strikes launched after the Uri attack has been exploited in every election, solely to prove that the government has been strong enough to retaliate.
The leadership has continued to seek political mileage on successful military actions, thus politicising the armed forces and its proficiency. Enhanced speed in completing defence deals is accompanied by blaming previous government’s actions and delays.
Means to Gain Political Mileage
The PM made it a point to spend Diwali with the troops, each time stating that ‘the government cares for the soldiers, and they are a part of his family’. His photographs with the troops are aimed at displaying his support to the soldiers. In every rally in poll-bound states, Modi never fails to mention that it is his government that granted OROP.
Directions to the army to establish three foot-over-bridges (FOBs) in Mumbai has led to doubts on the government’s intentions. The army is trained for constructing temporary structures in war, which can be dismantled once employed, for re-use elsewhere.
The pontoon bridges recently constructed in Kerala, or at the Sri Sri event in Delhi, or the Khumb Mela’s are some examples. The FOBs may be called temporary, but are near permanent structures, unlikely to ever be dismantled.
Hence, questions are being raised whether this was a task for the army, with multiple agencies still at the government’s beck and call, or is it another means to gain political mileage by completing a task, which others failed to do in good time, especially in a state where the BJP was losing ground.
Basking in the Army’s Glory
The police have also faced flak for their high-handedness against protesting veterans. Doubts are being raised as to whether this action was to implement court orders, or some other way of breaking a protest, likely to harm the BJP’s fortunes in the upcoming elections, especially in Himachal, where veterans have the power to influence vote banks.
In any case, police action should have been more discreet. This was further compounded when Republic TV, a news channel known for its pro-government stance, in a debate, had the leader of the agitation General Satbir Singh rebuked for addressing veterans from a Congress platform, thus, escalating tensions.
All government actions, when analysed, appear to be either reducing the impact of protesting veterans or employing the army’s success in operations to its political advantage.
The ruling government is also aware that the Opposition can’t criticise the armed forces as it would face public wrath, and therefore, openly exploits it.
Political Limelight Could Ruin Army’s Internal Fabric
Those who questioned the surgical strikes, had to back down in the face of public reaction. It is also aware that the veteran movement is capable of impacting voting patterns in the Himachal, and hence, had to ensure it is splintered well before it.
The eviction, media blackouts, insulting its leadership on national channels, and ensuring it does not regroup in the near future are some measures that have been adopted.
The BJP is also aware that the immense support given by veterans to Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh in Punjab was amongst the reasons for its near-washout in the state, and therefore, would not desire the same in Himachal.
In a democracy, there is a very thin line between right or wrong methodologies to garner votes, but riding on the successes of the only apolitical element of national power may be the beginning of a growing trend.
Simultaneously employing them in tasks beyond their charter, solely to gain brownie points from the public, could enhance political exploitation and lead the army to wasting its limited resources in places where it has no role.
It is high time the government revisits its approach, as the route it is adopting could bring the army into the political limelight, which could potentially harm its internal fabric.
(The author is a retired army officer based in Lucknow. He can be reached at @kakar_harsha. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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