SEEMA MUSTAFA | 10 MAY, 2019
Politicisation at a rapid pace
In the years of covering the military and the defence sector I have never come across this kind of churning within. Where senior officers have been issuing statements and writing articles contradicting facts put out by political leaders, or warning against the dangers of politicising the military. The one institution that was allowed to remain outside the political structure ---unlike the police where the politician has his fingers around throats of even lowly constables---has over the past five years in particular been brought into the vortex of politics that it is now visibly struggling to remain out of.
The relations between the Bharatiya Janata Party that embraces the military as integral to its concept of macho nationalism have been, interestingly enough, uneasy from the word go. Veterans and serving soldiers who really thought, given the party’s loud rhetoric for the uniform, that ‘achhe din’ had at least come for the military with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in power were confronted with bombast pretty early on in the day. Ex-servicemen who came out with their demand for One Rank One Pension, sure that this would be accepted with alacrity, were shocked to find themselves placed out of the ‘nationalist’ sphere by the very political party that had promised them the moon.
OROP gathered traction given the obdurate stance of the Modi government in its initial years. Senior military officers joined the protest, and Jantar Mantar became the venue for hundreds of old soldiers to stage dharnas, and berate the government for going back on its own. This was really the first break between the government and the military, in that the realisation that ‘nationalist’ governments do not necessarily bother about the rights of the soldiers started seeping in. And that in political doublespeech rarely is action matched to rhetoric.
So while the government drew mileage from photographs and video of the military sweeping across Kashmir in search of terrorists, in the plains of India the picture was not that rosy. In Haryana, a small but significant instance, had the Indian Army staging a flag march when violence broke out within the state carrying placards stating ARMY. This was to distinguish the Indian army from the paramilitary forces that had adopted similar uniforms, unprecedented really in what was read by veterans as a sign of how the military had indeed started struggling for required space.
The Indian Army Chief created some disquiet in recent years by making what his senior colleagues felt were unnecessarily political statements. For instance General Bipin Rawat kicked up a storm february 2018 when he brought a mixture of politics into his press briefing about securing the borders with Bangladesh. He spoke of “planned migration” taking place at the instance of “our western neighbour” supported by “our northern border to keep the area disturbed.” And then stepped in with, “there is a party called AIUDF. If you looked at it they have grown in a faster time-frame than the BJP grew over the years. The AIDUF is moving at a faster pace in Assam” The suggestion clearly was that a recognised political party was build on illegal migration.
There has been enough in the public domain to worry professional military officers, who have expressed deep concern about the overall climate where soldiers are being encouraged to cross the line as it were. As a veteran said, “they have brought the animal to the edge of the river, and now all that remains is for it to drink the water.” Fears started coming home to roost after the Pulwama terror attack, followed by the Balakot operations that has created serious ripples down the military spine leading top officers to write to the President of India, not one but several letters warning of the dangers of politicisation.
Balakot stands out for two reasons. One the differing versions of the action where ‘sources’ briefed the media in the first instance maintaining that not only had the Jaish e Mohammad camps been taken out, but that at least 300 persons had been killed. This news ran on the captive media channels for over 24 hours. It took some days for this to be challenged effectively with Reuters and Janes Defence Weekly publishing satellite photographs to insist no such attack had taken place. In that sense they confirmed the Pakistan position.
The confusion within the military was evident. Although loyalties subdued the questions into whispers in the private domain the concern was evident. The political opposition voiced this with direct questions to PM Modi about the operations that immediately elicited the ‘anti national’ abuse that has become a characteristic BJP weapon. The debate from the social media, went into political parties headquarters, into the print media both at the national and international levels. India’s proud military had to contend with questions that it never had before. The wars during the 1960’s, 1971, Kargil ---its prowess and role was unmistakable. Until Balakote where the credentials of the Indian military are being subjected to probe and question.
And as if this was not enough the ruling party came out to adopt Balakote in a manner where it appeared that the BJP cadres had donned military uniforms and joined news anchors across the border. One senior worthy of the party actually wore a military uniform as he went around to campaign for the elections. BJP hoardings appeared across the country giving the party credit for the military operation. Several top leaders ---we all know who--- referred to Balakot in their speeches asking for the peoples vote. The jingoism of nationalism was stirred as never before, in a pot that stank.
Looking back at the files of 1971 when the Indian Army had created Bangladesh by dividing Pakistan ---by the way a BJP candidate recently stumbled when asked about the 1971 war as he didn’t even know that Bangladesh was earlier East Pakistan---there was no such exultation by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Faults or not, the lady allowed the military operation to be owned by the military with the generals of the time leading from the front. That she was the Prime Minister and responsible was a fact acknowledged by India and the world. She did not have to wear the credit that came to her anyways on her sleeve.
Worried about the impact of the politicisation on the military, already weighed under the past five years where even an Army chief had so forgotten himself as to start dabbling in the political discourse, the veterans came together to pen down their concerns. Former Naval Chief Admiral L.Ramdas started it, with top veterans following, and letters were sent to the President of India as the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces to intervene and stop this politicisation. That he barely acknowledged the missives was perhaps expected, but the letters published in the public doman had a clear impact. Civil and political society joined the veterans with a “Stop it” demand and it did seem as if some little tempering had taken place.
Until this week when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his obsession with the Congress Nehru-Gandhi family, chose to target assassinated PM Rajiv Gandhi in two successive speeches. The first was an attack on corruption where he said that Rajiv Gandhi died not as Mr Clean but as a brashtachari. And even as a wave of revulsion overtook this remark, the PM followed it with a statement that Rajiv Gandhi had taken foreigners on a holiday aboard the INS Viraat. And the foreigners of course included his in-laws. This in a speech at a public rally in Delhi.
Within hours the military reacted, as fortunately the commanders of INS Viraat are still alive as is the Naval Chief of the time. And are professional enough not to remain quiet when confronted with lies, even if from the head of government. Vice Admioral Vinod Pasricha who commanded INS Viraat told The Tribune, “It was an official visit. The PM (Rajiv Gandhi), (wife) SOnia Gandhi and (son)Rahul (early teens then) were picked up on a helicopter from Trivandrum and they sailed to Lakshwadeep Islands for a meeting fo the Islands development authority.”
It was an overnight journey, and going by ship was the only option as the islands did not have a landing strip. No foreigners were present. And this was certainly not a private visit or a holiday. PM Modi had said that INS Viraat was used as a “private taxi” by the late PM.
Former Navy chief Admiral Ramdas and the Southern Navy Commander then issued a statement saying that he was on board the INS Viraat that day. And there were no foreigners. He said he was issuing the statement with full authority, after speaking to the other senior officers involved at the time, and had been serving on the Western Fleet. Admiral Ramdas has also made it clear that one the Prime Minister was an official visit, two there were no foreigners on board, no ships were diverted, the men attended a bada khana to meet the PM, and only one small helicopter was left at Kavratti to meet any emergency medical requirements of the PM and his wife.
There has not been a word from PM Modi or his office since these rebuttals have been issued. Not a word as to what prompted him to embellish the truth, and politicise what was a non-political visit by the then PM in the line of his work.
The use of the military by this dispesnation has long since crossed into the realm of ‘misuse’. As veterans point out this increasing pace of politicisation is sinister and dangerous, as the military is an armed institution.