LT GENERAL BHOPINDER SINGH | 20 JANUARY, 2017
Expectations From Soldiers in Politics
Ill-informed orthodoxy of the past suggested that the ‘apolitical’ mandate of the Indian Armed Forces should sub-consciously extend to the veterans in the post-retirement phase of their existence. This ingrained shunning and contempt for the electoral process and it’s ‘dhotiwallahs’ was the bugbear of the eventual apathy for the Indian Armed Forces.
Without exception, political parties have been inherently disinterested in the institution as it offered neither the valuable ‘notes’, nor the invaluable ‘votes’. Over time, a uninterrupted slide for the institution ensued in the official warrant of precedence, budgets were hair-combed towards crippling combat inadequacies and creating insults like OROP and the successive pay commissions that unambiguously point to the misaligned priorities between the national executive (politico-civil bureaucracy, combine) and the extended family of the Indian Armed Forces, both serving and retired personnel of the three Defence Forces.
Today, opinions are divided on the participation of the veterans in the political process of the country – unfortunately, history shows that no amount of impressive conduct, élan or sacrifice to the nation is enough to warrant addressing the institutional concerns in the corridors of power.
The veterans must partake the constitutionally provided opportunity to raise their voice in the State and National assemblies which ultimately approves or disapproves the various imperatives. Given the track record of all political parties and their governments, it would be puerile to attribute blind faith in any one political party for having championed their causes, as each has had blood on their hands as far as commitments to the Armed Forces are concerned.
Therefore, any national party that ostensibly stands for the ‘nation’ is kosher, as long as the outlook is to chisel, devise and drive the subsequent agenda for the good of the Armed Forces – the more the participation in various parties, the better for the Armed Forces as the dangers of a singular political party appropriating the supposed claims of pro-military, invariably come home to roost. It is not to challenge the fundamental principle of civilian supremacy in the hallowed framework of our constitution, but to correct the dangerous perceptions of ‘use and abuse’ within the institution, that is no longer based on emotions, but on hard facts.
However, given the construct of the Indian Armed Forces – the single largest volunteer and proudly ‘apolitical’ Defence Force in the world, there are inescapable codes of conduct that are enshrined to be honoured, both inside and outside of the uniform. Veterans carry the rare dignity of carrying the prefix of ‘rank’ to their graves, hence the duality of honour and responsibility to behove in a manner befitting the exacting standards of the institution. Arguably, the only governmental institution personifying the lofty ‘unity in diversity’, the Armed Forces walk the spirit of national integration beyond the realms of religious, ethnic, linguistic or casteist denominations in their unique ways (the supposedly ‘caste’ based regiments never express themselves in any regressive or pejorative connotation and are inexplicably integrative in the operative sense).
Unknown to most outside the ‘barracks’, but the institution hosts a supremely patriotic and dedicated array of Nagas, Manipuris, Kashmiri youths and other supposedly irate sections of the national narrative. This DNA of inclusivity is unparalleled, celebrated and expected out of all, irrespective of rank or service. Often this posits the sensibilities of a veteran in contrast to that of a provincial party that clearly propagates a regional, religious or specific agenda that is not becoming of the institutional ethos, hence the appropriateness and conduciveness of National parties.
Political encomiums like the ‘first Dalit’, ‘first Muslim’ etc. that are personally attributable (as opposed to professionally attributable, like belonging to a regiment or service-arm to associate relevance) is deeply frowned upon and looked down upon, as it violates the only approved hierarchy of loyalty that ought to come from a serviceman, serving or retired i.e. unit, regiment, service-arm and above all, the nation.
It is true, that fighting under any political flag automatically risks subsuming the absolute concurrence of the individual to that of the party’s antecedents - however, outstanding exceptions like Jaswant Singh, who wore his military pride, conduct and deference expected out of an ‘Gentleman officer’, made him standout from the more political insinuations and aspersions that were reserved for his party-members. Therefore, it is not necessarily the manifesto or the history of the party that a veteran joins that is germane, but his or her subsequent conduct, whilst, in the political party.
If it is the service-record (and seniority of rank) that is the principal leitmotif of invoking votes, it becomes even more onerous that the individual engages the conversations within the ingrained values and probity of expressions. Already the Armed Forces, for reasons beyond their control are witnessing levels of divisiveness that are unparalleled – in terms of various service-arms, ranks, serving versus non-serving, and now, with the vicious angularity of blind political affiliations.
Unfortunately, some veterans have been propped up as the latest ‘newsroom warriors’ who under the plumes of their hard-earned fauji-hats inject the unquestionable muscularity, and knowingly or unknowingly, defend the new-fangled interpretations of uber-nationalism (bordering jingoism) that disallows any contrarian views under the garb of ‘nationalism’ – the wily politicos merrily deflect uncomfortable questions on unrelated issues like demonetization, playing national anthem in cinemas, to other socio-economic crisis by conveniently alluding to the ‘soldier’.
To reiterate, no government since the independence has covered itself with glory on matters pertaining to the Defence Forces, all have been complicit in the downgrading with utter immunity – the challenge is for veterans to join the political mainstream and voice the hitherto, muzzled concerns of the institution (the serving forces must remain fiercely apolitical).
For sure, they can and must propound on matters beyond causes of the Armed Forces, like any other political person, however, given their existential and the principal electoral rationale for having invoked the votes, they owe their alma mater the dignity of conduct – else, an individual is free to ‘drop’ the rank from his or her name and seek the votes in pursuant of either individual merits (non-military) or on behalf of the chosen party positions, but never invoking the military service-record as the plausible raison d'etre.
(Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd), is Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry)
(Cover Photograph: Former Indian Army Chief General JJ Singh campaigning for his election in Punjab)