The election fever has not only gripped all the political parties, but seems to have resulted in peculiar orders and instructions being issued to established institutions of the government, whose tasks, duties and work-culture have firmed-in over a long time. Unfortunately, incorrect and ill-conceived tasks are being thrust on them, which are beyond, and outsize their charter.

This will have both immediate and long-term adverse effects on their functioning. It will weaken not only them but the nation and even the fundamentals of democracy, which are inviolable strengths of our nation.

While the ill effects relating to various important facets of governance are well known, this piece is being written about adverse tasks being assigned to the most important institution of the nation: the Armed Forces.

These will not only affect the functioning of the Armed Forces, but also their ethos, discipline and focus that have contributed to the respect and good name they have earned, wherein they are admired and respected by the nation’s polity, as well as most, if not all militaries of the world.

Unfortunately, our political system has deteriorated to such an extent over the last seven decades that winning elections has superseded every aspect of the governing culture. These aspects are likely to act as brakes to India becoming a great and respected power in the comity of nations. We need to introspect and change.

The visible and ill aspects of the prevailing muscularity and majoritarian views of our current leaders and their frequent recourse to them, need not be repeated here as they are well-known. The weakening of established institutions that were built painstakingly, with vision, dedication and discipline continues, notwithstanding that they have been pillars of stability of the nation.

They are now being by-passed with impunity and are being sacrificed at the altar of ‘retaining power’, by all means. It is highly unfortunate that these ills are now being directed even at the Armed Forces, both subtly and openly. This must end before more damage is done to this last and publicly most respected instrument of the nation.

The Armed Forces of India have always been apolitical and this is their most important strength, in addition to their professional acumen. These result in dealing with our adversaries, safeguarding sovereignty and coming to the assistance of our citizens, both within the country and abroad.

The Armed Forces must not have, or even seem to have, any role in anything political. Their roles, tasks and actions are well-defined. Political jousts are for political leaders and parties, not for the Armed Forces!

Leaders of all political parties have tried in the past to use or rather misuse the Armed Forces to bolster their electoral prospects, or win brownie points against their political opponents. They understand that the Armed Forces are the most respected and loved instruments of the state and carry out allotted tasks with alacrity.

In the past, overtures of political parties, especially the parties in power were politely but firmly rejected and political leaders were dissuaded. Unfortunately, the present government has taken such attempts to extremes and it appears that in the last decade or so the military hierarchy has been succumbing to political pressures.

The Armed Forces of our nation collectively believe in and follow the cardinal principles of being secular, and taking no stands in political battles in all their manifestations, as laid out in our extremely comprehensive Constitution.

To elaborate and taking the example of the Army, although it is applicable to the other two services too, the rank and file and officers up to the commanding officers and perhaps up to brigade commanders have been and are wedded to ‘no politics’; ‘no religious or gender discrimination’; and ‘no caste or ethnic bias’.

That is the strength of the Army and that is the reason it has the trust and adulation of the people of India. Most officers at higher levels also meticulously follow these percepts and the Army way of life, but in recent years, some in the senior hierarchy seem to have abandoned/diluted it.

The senior the officer, his/her appetite for yet another higher rank; fulfilling other material ambitions, including amassing the filthy lucre; and also misplaced loyalties, result in abandoning their inherited psyche and they let go the constraints of morality in general and their training and upbringing in the service in particular. A most pitiable state as it has a direct and immediate adverse effect on all serving personnel.

For the layman, it is important to amplify the trait of ‘service above self’ by officers and soldiers of the Indian Military, and the adverse effects of politicisation, especially in this information age, where all military personnel are fully aware of what is happening in the nation and understand the pros and cons of political manoeuvring that various political parties’ resort to for retaining their power, pelf and electoral victory.

A politicised military is one that exercises loyalty to a single political party and/or advocates for and defends partisan political positions and fortunes. On the other hand, an apolitical, nonpartisan military is one that serves the government of the day.

The military serves the Constitution through obedience to democratically elected political leaders, without regard for political party or partisan positions and ideologies. This idea underwrites the peaceful transfer of power between successive governments and ensures that the people of India can make governance choices free from the threat of coercion.

This, if followed in letter and spirit, would automatically result in the political leaders getting sound professional military advice and to trust the expertise provided by senior military officers.

Moreover, if the military also became what was coined as ‘committed bureaucracy’ when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister, and which has become worse today, voters might reasonably assume that the party would no longer be able to control the military, if voted to power. In other words, the democratically elected representatives of the people would not be able to count on the faithful execution of national security policy, if the military expressly favoured a particular political party.

Such conditions would break down the public’s confidence in either the disfavoured party, or in the military, and damage the functioning of the government.

Many erstwhile Chiefs of the Armed Forces have stressed on these aspects, especially in difficult times. Names that come immediately to mind are General (later Field Marshal) K. M. Cariappa; Gen K. S. Thimayya; General (later Field Marshal) Sam Manekshaw; and Gen T. N. Raina. The latter was the Chief during the extremely difficult Emergency era and held firm to the ethos of the armed forces, despite pressures.

Another critical result of an apolitical military is that it protects the military, because the Indian Military serves elected representatives from different political parties equally; there is no reason for those representatives to treat the military differently based on their ideologies.

In addition, decisions about the funding, size, shape, and use of the military are less likely to be driven by partisan strategic, economic, and public values of political ideologies. The bottom line is that all aspects of service personnel management and pursuit of operational matters must remain a professional and not political process.

Let me now briefly highlight a few recent examples of how the political party in power is dragging the Armed Forces in the cesspool of politics, to get more votes for themselves, at the cost of grossly diluting the reputation and professional excellence of the armed forces.

For starters, the Armed Forces’ hierarchy was press-ganged to adopt the so-called Agniveer Scheme for recruitment of soldiers, when a perfectly well-established recruitment system had been giving excellent results, which added to the strength of the military and at the same time was welcomed by the young men/women who had made up their minds to serve the nation with pride, as their forefathers had done.

Approximately six months down the line, when the initial Agniveers have started serving in their units, the ill-effects are starkly visible, despite the Commandants of Recruit Training Centre’s going out of their way to train them well in the curtailed training time.

In addition, the Commanding Officers of regular units where they have joined, have used and are using well-thought-out drills and procedures to amalgamate them with the well-trained and skilled regular soldiers, but the already existing multifarious tasks of the Commanding Officers, who are the warrior-leaders of the Armed Forces, have increased manifold. I wish I could add any gains from this misconstrued exercise, but sadly, we have gained nothing.

In May 2023, instructions were issued for all ranks proceeding on leave to do what was euphemistically called ‘Social Service’ whereby soldiers and officers, while on leave were to make aware the local civilians about the various government welfare schemes, which had been launched by the government in power.

These included schemes like National Pension System (NPS), Atal Pension Yojana, Livestock Insurance Scheme, Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana, Deendayal Grameen Kaushalya Yojna and many others, thus becoming canvassers of the ruling party! The soldiers, having little knowledge of these schemes, became merely endorsers of the political party, since similar schemes of earlier governments were not mentioned.

According to media reports, the Army Training Command was directed to produce notes and talking points for these schemes for service personnel to use for propagation of these schemes. This was obviously a ploy to ‘use’ or rather misuse the personnel of the armed forces, wrongly.

This scheme is obviously for gaining political points by the political party now in power and is reprehensible, especially as a person who dons a uniform and is respected in the community for his impartiality is being misused.

Besides politicising the Armed Forces, it was conveniently ignored that leave was granted to soldiers for rest and recuperation after hectic work in their units and formations, away from their kith and kin. In addition, soldiers had to utilise their leaves for many personal chores, meeting family obligations, assisting parents and siblings in agricultural work and a myriad list of other duties to perform.

It was also forgotten by the initiators that our villages, towns and cities are highly aware politically and all parties would be fully immersed in ‘selling’ their party for the elections. This may create ugly scenes for the soldiers and their families. This scheme needs to be withdrawn totally at the earliest.

One more example of misuse of service personnel is yet another ploy to increase the vote bank of the ruling party, wherein the good name of the armed forces is being misused for political gains. This is the ‘Selfie with Armed Forces Scheme’ wherein nearly 1000 locales have been selected, which will be set up and manned by armed forces personnel.

So, why are senior officers of the Armed Forces coming out in the media and giving their pro-government political views in public, without any thought to the office they hold or the adverse effects it will have on their commands? Why also are they accepting orders/instructions/hints, which their training, service and experience tells them are patently incorrect, if not illegal and have political aims?

It also begs the question why the Veterans seem to identify wrongs, while the serving hierarchy seems to give serious issues having highly adverse effects on the professional ability of the armed forces, only such cursory looks?

Is it to repay the gratuitous rewards they had received or may receive in future, or some way of showing a higher degree of loyalty? In short, has the ‘committed bureaucracy syndrome’ seeped into the armed forces too?

No clarifications or later goody-goody utterances can wipe out the adverse impact of what has been spoken publicly and widely reported in the media and is currently being implemented.

In the 75 years of our Independence, we have had many political parties governing the country, but most have ‘listened to the calls of the citizens’; and abandoned/modified/ delayed the government actions that were being vehemently opposed by the polity. Even the Coalition Government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee did so, but the common refrain now is best summed up by the Hindi phrase ‘Sunwai Nahin Hoti’, when the citizens express their grievances.

The present governing structure seems to rely heavily on either rhetoric and little implementation or keeping silent, like in letting Manipur burn!

The Armed Forces of India are best left outside the pale of politics, as many luminaries have said repeatedly, if the nation wants them to continue to deliver in peace; no-war-no-peace; or war situations.

They need the love and adulation of the citizenry, which they richly deserve, but please do not drag them to the cesspool of politics.

Lt General Vijay Oberoi is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff and the Former Founder Director of the Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), and now its Director General Emeritus. Views expressed are the writer’s own.