In heated electoral times, there is a flurry of Veteran joinees to various partisan ranks, and odd questions of propriety, relevance, and appropriateness about the same linger, subliminally – but why not?

If in a participative democracy, the Military leadership is rightfully subservient to the Civilian government, and is expected to work under the same, then why is that hallowed ‘government’ composed of politicians, not worthy of joining ranks for those who aspire to do so?

This smug self-righteousness about ‘politics as the last resort of scoundrels’ can be a bit rich, sanctimonious and lazily convenient against those who do pick up the gauntlet to be agents of positive change. For Veterans to be individually political (or even expressively partisan) is a matter of free choice, and it ought not to be equated to the real danger of politicisation of the institution of the Armed Forces – as that, is a clear and present danger.

The institution of the Armed Forces is necessarily (constitutionally and historically) an apolitical realm for very good reasons, and the onus of ensuring this very fine and necessary delineation, is on those who do jump into the political fray. There could be a natural tendency (and grave risk) of implied conflation of the Veteran flow towards a specific partisan direction, assumed to align with institution’s preferred direction – but nothing could be further from the truth, as exoduses to and fro (even of Veterans) are a matter of individual ideological preference and topical windvanes and weathervanes. They are not institutional of anchorage.

No government since Independence (absolutely none without exception) has worked selflessly about the defence / security realm beyond posturing faux muscularity, milking the ‘nationalist’ fervour associated with the institution, or expressing condescending and patronising cheer / outrage selectively, with a constant eye to reap electoral harvests. In such a situation, more Veteran presence across the National / State assemblies can only augur well, irrespective of the partisan flags to which the individuals subscribe.

Veterans in Indian politics is not a novel phenomenon, as no less than the first native Chief of Army Staff and later Field Marshal, KM Cariappa, stood for Lok Sabha elections from Mumbai North East in 1971, albeit he lost. Later, many more across the partisan divide made the transition from the proverbial Olive Green to Khadi seamlessly and made notable contributions.

But perhaps, not enough numbers. For a nation with nearly 1.4 million active strength of its standing Armed Forces, that has gone to multiple full-fledged wars with nuclear armed enemies and has been in a constant vortex of violent insurgent movements, having less than 1% of its elected members in the Parliament is clearly suboptimal – the figures for comparable democracies like the USA and UK are close to 20% and 10% respectively.

This abysmally low figure of representation prevents it from working as a collective pressure group, for meaningful impact across the board. (The fate of protests like OROP is consequently ordained.) Importantly, Veterans across the political divide in the US and UK often sink their partisan loyalties and espouse the institutional causes more purposefully, forcefully and collectively – a byproduct of their healthy representation, and the natural ability to put institutional/national/security purposes over partisan positioning.

However, the virtue of Veteran participation in the political mainstream is above all, in the sheer need for diversity of professional experiences and varied perspectives on the floor of the Parliament. The romantic notion that Military experience by itself qualifies to make a person more informed, honest or a ‘nationalistic’ parliamentarian, as could widely resonate amongst the ‘Uniformed’ ecosystem, is frankly a tad presumptuous – not wrong or right, just a very ‘entitling’ thought, as it really depends on the public positions one takes on various issues, and for that, background can be frankly irrelevant.

While Veterans will always be institutionally acquainted with concepts (beyond its platitudinal usage in political speeches) like service-before-self, duty, honour, sacrifice, discipline, teamwork, respect, and suchlike constructs of nobility associated with the profession of arms – the ability to similarly subordinate themselves to a larger purpose as fearlessly, after having shed the Olive Greens and signed onto a partisan flag, is individual and key Sometimes partisanship can constrain that ability to speak and conduct themselves as fearlessly on matters of constitutional propriety, owing to the party whip.

The acid test of contribution is the demonstrated impact of a distinct perspective that alters (even challenges) the political narrative towards the institution or the security realm, in the corridors of power. If it were only tantamount to adding the ‘muscularity’ that naturally accrues to the ‘uniform’ by defending the rote partisan agenda, then Veteran impact would be minimal.

A Veteran represents the broad (perhaps essential) cross-section of society, that need not be valorised to unrealistic levels, as that is neither practical nor desirable in a democracy. Therefore, all things being equal, there is usually a better case for enhanced Veteran participation in politics – especially in times like now, when divisive polarisation is all pervasive, and at times even sanctified by political parties that willy-nilly champion religious, ethnic or even regional exclusivism, chauvinism and even supremacism. Veterans could be expected to be a better bet to counter the same.

Another glaring lacuna in the Indian context is the absence of independent Veterans commentating at the national level, even if were to be in the journalistic, academic, and intellectual realms, as opposed to be overtly political card holders. This route offers the invaluable opportunity to be politically active, contributory, and relevant, but perhaps not partisan.

Instead we have some Veterans on television, plumed in unmistakable militaristic elements like tilted regimental hats, flags, insignias and even medallions, whilst taking an openly partisan position – thereby subconsciously suggesting an institutional attachment to an unversed audience, when that is not the case, or ought not to be so.

The recklessness with which hallowed service / regimental elements are reduced to optical props diminishes them. Sometimes the churlish bluster, bombast and aggression accompanying these ‘now-studio-warriors’ feeds the wholly inadequate and stereotypical imagery of warmongering lions in the winter of their lives, with the more sagacious, restrained and balanced template of an ‘officer and a gentleman’ sadly rested at the altar of TRPs and party agendas.

Whereas the mythical imagery afforded on the legendary Marine Corps General James Mattis with the ‘Generation Kill’ TV series, Oorah persona, call sign ‘Chaos’, swaggering memes and multiple unsaid quotes barely disguised the inherent gravitas, scholarship and erudition borne of a thoroughbred Scholar-Warrior, with a personal collection of over 7,000 books.

Hailed as the ‘only adult in the room’ of Donald Trump’s hyper-nationalistic administration and dangerously divisive thinking, Mattis was made along the lines of other Veterans like HR McMaster and John F Kelly, who importantly called the bluff of Trump’s vain muscular-politics, which inherently militated with the ethos of the Armed Forces, which as the US Joint Chief of Staff General Mike Mullen reminded, ‘We take an oath to the constitution, not an individual’.

Across the Indian partisan chessboard, many Veterans like Jaswant Singh, Rajesh Pilot, BB Khanduri etc. exemplified that institutional dignity, without insisting on their ranks, trying to usurp the institution to their partisan fold, or indulging in silly braggadocio – importantly all three let their work speak for them, often spoke their mind contrary to the partisan positions, and even paid the price for their upright individualities.

A Jaswant Singh could hold his own in the External Affairs and Finance Ministries (besides Defence) with matching aplomb, elan, courtly mannerism and elevated thinking that indirectly enhanced the institutional perceptions and did not require comical theatrics and dramatics of sound-and-fury. By their conduct, they reminded the nation that they represented the very best of constitutionalists and inclusivists in the country. Importantly, they established the utility of a Veteran-politician beyond the obvious world of security.

Therefore, irrespective of an individual’s partisan choice, one must welcome more Veteran participation in deciding the fate of the nation, via electoral or commentating route, as once you are out of the uniform, there is an obligation to speak up when sovereignty or constitutionality is under threat.

As one learns in combat experience, there are two facets to courage, physical and moral, and both require ‘going first’, but the latter is more relevant in Parliament, as it requires the Veteran to remember that the responsibility, honour and fearlessness associated with the institution should not end with discharge.

So, this debate about the appropriateness of Veterans in politics leading to politicisation of the institution should end, as that need not be the case, and the onus to ensure this vital delink is on those who do enter politics. The journey from Olive Green to Khadi may be a difficult trudge, but it is a vital one, and must be partaken with due sensitivity, dignity and bipartisanship, especially when it comes to matters pertaining to constitutionality and to the institution itself.

Former Army chief Gen JJ Singh (retd) joins SAD (Taksali)

Cover Photograph: File 2019 of former Army chief General JJ Singh joining the Akali Dal. He has now just joined the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is former Lt Governor of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry