Indian Army and the Politician: A Symbiotic Relationship?
NEW DELHI: The Indian army is not a politicized force in the same way as Pakistan's and neither does it play any role in the politics and administration of the country.
And it never will, for a variety of reasons, the foremost being that democracy for all its warts and shortcomings is well entrenched in India, and executive control over the Olive Greens is firmly established.
But it is a reality, talked about in hushed tones that, over decades, the military-politician nexus has somewhat diluted the military's overall professionalism and apolitical stature.
Unarguably, India’s political establishment has chipped away at the military’s operational decision making capabilities, an assertion that will doubtlessly be challenged by the loutish gaggle of bewhiskered retired army officers, hysterically hyper-ventilating on television news channels every evening.
Senior army officers admit that the ‘political gains factor’ has, perforce, to be accommodated into their strategy at every step, at times blunting even their operational edge. They concede that operational flexibility, at times, ends up being subservient to political expediency, rather than larger, well-considered tactical and even strategic considerations. In army messes this is referred to as looking-over-the-shoulder syndrome as they operate.
By defining operational content in limited political terms- as appears increasingly evident in the surgical strikes by Indian Special Forces in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir, the fundamental and underlying character of military engagement alters. Over years this has degenerated into a symbiotic relationship between the politicians and the uniforms, for old-fashioned profit.
The former use the army for political benefit, whilst the latter secure promotions and high office after retirement for services rendered. It suits both parties to invent triumph and to manufacture good news through a pliable media that insulates the establishment from public anger and the collective dismal record of failures. Activities like surgical strikes, allow politicians to milk the army’s combat abilities to their advantage on the election trail.
Such institutional infirmities undermine the conduct of any country’s military leadership, as this ends up adversely tailoring and altering its postures to the demands of the ruling party, rather than the government of the day.
Such activity remains a well-practiced manoeuvre, dating not that far back to the Kargil conflict when a caretaker BJP-government was in office.
For, as the Kargil war wound down, another one began- to protect the image and legitimacy of the BJP administration and the army’s izzat, badly dented by Pakistan’s ghost-like ingress into the mountainous tregion. Their collective weapon of choice to execute this invidious battle was the media.
The army, for its part, insisted it had not vacated any forward posts the previous winter before hostilities erupted in May 1999. It claimed no hard intelligence existed that Pakistan was planning a limited offensive and after hostilities did erupt, it insisted that its execution was flawless and all claims of command failure- of which there were innumerable-untrue.
The media obliged with the overriding sentiment- like presently- being that all criticism was ill-placed, misinformed, motivated, dishonest, and, above, all anti-national.
The politician rode skillfully on the obliging army’s back and the entire strategy worked brilliantly.
A large section of the country’s newspaper reading public and even larger television audience, never ever came to know about the gross political and military mismanagement and incompetence over events leading to the disastrous Kargil war, or its execution in which over 500 Indian soldiers died and another 1,200 were injured, many permanently maimed.
The inquiry commission into the Kargil war remained a formality, and like all such government investigations failed in apportioning unpardonable lapses that escalated the situation to a near-nuclear exchange that needed US intervention to defuse.
Even after competent histories of the conflict written by former officers like Major-General Y.M. Bammi,The Impregnable Conquered, and Major-General Ashok Kalyan Verma, Blood on the Snow,confirmed accounts of major errors, the mainstream media-like after the September 29 surgical raids across the Line of Control- opted to remain unquestioning.
Weeks later, in October 1999, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance was sworn into federal office.
Perhaps the posters that have sprung up in recent days across poll-bound Uttar Pradesh, Goa and Punjab featuring Prime Minister Narendra Modi as Ram and Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar as Hanuman, is a redux of an earlier event featuring the army. The reciprocal arrangement continues.
(Rahul Bedi is a senior journalist writing on defence and strategy)