The Hindutva Project and India’s Military
The military, so far, sees it itself as professional, apolitical and secular
As per its chief, Amit Shah, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) intends to get 50 per cent of the votes at the next hustings. It has enough time to put its act together, having been forewarned of the mood through its losses in the recent by-elections, particularly in the stronghold of India’s most electorally significant state, Uttar Pradesh. Even though it now runs the governments across India’s landmass in some nineteen states, the ambitious figure set by Amit Shah for the BJP showing is seemingly implausible.
It is nevertheless the kind of figure the ruling party needs to get on full throttle with its political project. Liberal conspiracy theorists see the BJP as the political front of the wider right wing ‘parivar’ led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The pseudo- cultural political formations comprising the parivar reputedly have a political project for the transformation of India in mind, termed Hindutva. To the extent the BJP is not quite a normal conservative political party, but a Trojan horse in national politics of the parivar, it is set out to implement the Hindutva project. This is not a conspiracy theory as much as a self-confessed project of the ruling party.
Since the political masters of the military – the current day lead party in the ruling coalition – answer to a far right conglomerate with uncertain obligation to the national Constitution, it bears reflection as to what the Hindutva political project implies for the military. The ruling party has now been in charge for nearly two terms over two separate stints in government as the primary partner in the coalitions. The clue therefore lies in how the ruling party has approached civil-military relations over its two terms.
The two terms are markedly different, in that the first term was under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was very much an insider to Delhi’s politics and a traditionalist. Thus, besides showing its fangs early in its innings in the sacking of the naval chief by the defence minister, himself a leader of a marginal party in the coalition out to prove his loyalty to the ruling party, it left the military largely to its professional self.
The tone was set by the nuclear blasts early in Vajpayee’s second stint as prime minister. Drawing the right conclusions from the blasts and their echo across the border in Pakistan, the government launched the Lahore peace initiative. In the event, the initiative was aborted by the Pakistani army’s intrusion into Kargil.
The conflict aftermath kept the military to the professional till, particularly with Kashmir boiling over. Operation Parakram, launched in wake of the parliament attack, set the stage for the remainder of the Vajpayee tenure. That the army could not deliver conventional retribution led to the mobilization being covered up as coercive diplomacy. Suitably chastened, the military busied itself with reworking its conventional doctrine.
The second term of the BJP has been under an outsider, a former provincial chief minister, out to overturn the Lutyen’s Delhi-based ‘establishment’. An elaborately manufactured electoral ‘wave’ led to elevation of the chief minister to 7 Race Course Road. The military was part of the forming of the wave, with its veteran’s rally in Rewari enabling its build up, along with other momentum-imparting factors as the anti-corruption foray by former military man, Anna Hazare. The arrival for the first time in three decades of a majority government and its promise of a corruption-free development agenda, conferred on the ruling party greater scope for re-engineering governance, and, at one remove, India.
The national security policy promised was a muscular one.
The stage was set by first creating the illusion of working for peace, with a hand outstretched towards Pakistan’s civilian government. That was equally speedily withdrawn, with the Line of Control reactivated in the very first year of the government. The situation along the LC has been steadily downhill since, with the surgical strikes across it being the high water mark.
On the eastern front, there was a similar reverse, with the front being seen as the second of a ‘two (and half front)’ war. Current-day headlines portend a Doklam II, with China reportedly resuming road construction activity that led up to the seventy three day stand-off last year. The additional ‘half’ front presumably is the prognosticated tie up between fifth columnist Muslims and the Maoists in the hinterland.
Even as the military has the two-front mantra as the government’s strategic doctrine for a guide, it has been left out in the cold without the wherewithal to fend off its two collusive enemies. Its vice chief recently let on to the parliamentary standing committee on defence that the decline in the defence budget to its lowest level in relation to the gross domestic product since the 1962 War was insufficient to cover for inflation and provide for the 125 odd procurement projects the military currently has underway, leave alone cater for modernising its equipment of which sixty per cent is vintage.
In short, the military is left to tackle an active western front and potentially active eastern front and to the extent it falls short, it would be left holding the can.
The government has taken care to have an amicable army chief, superseding two of his seniors. The Chief has been faulted not only by the liberal portion of the commentariat but also by sundry politicians and the opposition for being rather inclined towards the party line of the ruling party. The army chief’s latest speech was at the right wing think tank, the Vivekananda International Foundation.
Controversial godman, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar was invited to address a naval function. The air chief in his remarks at the air force day was criticized for being overly welcoming of the controversial turn in the Rafale deal. These and ever increasing incidence of such instance are seen as a departure from the hitherto apolitical utterances and practice by the military.
Clearly, the military cannot remain unscathed from Hindutva’s reset of Hindustan. However, it is intriguing that the military appears as being sidelined, even as its derring-do – such as in the surgical strikes - is used as political capital by the ruling party. This needs an explanation.
The Hindutva political project of a reset of Hindustan is an expansive one, which down the road could conceivably include rewriting the Constitution. Traditionalist institutions, such as the army, need to be softened timely for the rollout of the more consequential aspects of the project over the coming term of the ruling party.
The military – so far - sees itself as professional, apolitical and secular. The ante on the professional part is upped by the need to defend the borders on the two fronts. The military is also given full play in a portion of the ‘half front’, Kashmir. A professionally engaged military is unlikely to have any interest, attention span and energy for political pushback. Keeping the military to the professional till is termed objective civilian control of the military.
The apolitical characteristic - glimpsed earlier - is endangered in the military leadership buying into the ideology of the ruling right wing formations. The self-confessed ideological agenda of the ruling dispensation is to revise secularism. The secular characteristic of the military is alongside its sister characteristic – apolitical - in direct line of fire. The precedence set of deep selection of the military leadership enables elevation to its apex of those who show such propensities. This form of civilian control of the military is termed subjective control.
Seen is a blend of objective and subjective civilian control in action. In short, the Hindutva project entails a movement away from objective civilian control to subjective civilian control. It is at the expense of the apolitical and secular character of the military, even as the professional characteristic is temporarily boosted to cover the dilution of the former two. Even this boost is a chimera in that the military continues as a supplicant for the monies to meet professional ends.
From a civil-military relations perspective, it promises to be an interesting second term for the Modi government, should Mr. Shah deliver as he reckons. Since objective civilian control is a characteristic of democratic states, the shift away portends alongside a shift to an authoritarian and ideological state.
( Ali Ahmed is an independent strategic analyst. Views here are personal.)