Playing the ‘soldier card’ not in nation’s interests
Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (retd)
VETERANS in their regimental regalia and splendour are suddenly ubiquitous in fiery television debates, electioneering rallies and even on the posters beseeching votes as political candidates in their unmistakable military accoutrements like tilted mufti caps. The lazy disillusionment with the mainstream politicians and the wave of uber-nationalism have suddenly afforded the former combatants to lend the crucial nationalistic-legitimacy and muscularity to the political parties.
In the mature Western democracies, military service was usually seen as a stepping-stone towards a political office. However, care was taken to ensure that the fine line of maintaining the apolitical nature of the serving armed forces was usually respected by these veterans-turned-politicians. The military institution, per se, was always spared the partisan politics and the imagery of the soldier to get appropriated by any political slant or taint was disallowed (though right-wing parties typically attracted more veterans). Such a powerful presence of veterans in the policy-making and administration system ensures the critical military/security inputs and perspective in international affairs and interventions — this is in stark contrast to the Indian narrative, where the PMO and, at best, the MEA civil bureaucrats man the desks and decide the policies.
Besides, the obvious gap of expert military inputs in formulating approaches towards neighbouring countries, the absence of the former military personnel in the law-making assemblies has deprived the armed forces of an effective institutional-advocates that has sadly led to the recent degradation of status, OROP crisis, deprivations in every pay commissions and even in the necessary investments in the security wherewithal — the culture of political photo-ops and big announcements, notwithstanding.
It is important to recognise the inevitability of the Indian constitutional framework that necessitates the compelling ‘voice’ in Parliament as the sole mode of effective change — this cannot come through vacuous chest-thumping by politicians making condescending platitudes, who essentially view pressure groups from a monolithic identity, which the armed forces cannot realistically replicate. Occasional conversations by some veterans to stay away from the ‘civvies’ or ‘politicos’ (as it is ostensibly only for the ‘rogues’ and babus!) is misplaced bravado and grandstanding that can only perpetuate the rot afflicting the forces.
Irrespective of national or regional parties, the more the veterans get politically involved, the better for the institution and the nation (all parties without exception have been complicit in the ‘secondement’ of the forces). Two recent Chief Ministers — Capt Amarinder Singh in Punjab (Congress) and Maj-Gen Khanduri in Uttarakhand (BJP) — have both acquitted themselves with political maturity, flair and dexterity that made them second-to-none in the political sweepstakes. But, with the increased visibility of veterans in recent times, the essential fate of the forces has not got the required fillip and instead the veterans have been conveniently milked for their imagery to countenance, contextualise and legitimise related and unrelated political decisions (e.g. demonetisation).
The interplay between politics and veterans in politics has to be carefully navigated to ensure that the serving armed forces remain fiercely apolitical and publically revered, while the veterans bearing the various political memberships unite in the singular cause of the military institution, whilst, freely holding on to their respective party positions on all other matters. The concerns of the armed forces need to be properly and immediately addressed (not subjugated or conveniently misused), like they have been protected by former-babus-turned-politicians, of all political hues. Loose talk of allowing the military to ‘take over’ is fraught with unimaginable risks that can never be overstated — a cursory look at the neighbourhood exemplifies the same. The war hero and the five-star US General-turned-President, Eisenhower had sagely warned about ‘military-industrial complex’. India is a proud democratic country with clearly defined roles for various arms of governance — and the issue is not of redefining and seeking enhanced roles for the armed forces, but only to ensure that what was originally enshrined in the Constitution is respected and honoured, as the fate of the forces and its personnel has gone contrary to their defined status and contribution (often, beyond the call of duty).
Regrettably, the automatic respect of the ‘uniform’ starts getting compromised when the same gets misused by posturing for partisan purposes beyond the military/security domain. Rules regarding the appropriate occasions, medals and the allowable elements of the uniform are well known within the fraternity, though increasingly the veterans are knowingly or unknowingly taking liberties or acting as ‘props’ that serve the political purpose of identifying the ‘Indian soldier’ with one specific party, and unfairly and dangerously attributing the others as ‘non-patriotic’.
The political aloofness of the armed forces and its veterans have already cost the institution dearly, and therefore, it is incumbent to galvanise themselves as a meaningful ‘pressure group’ that espouses the institutional causes unitedly, even though their political opinions on other matters could mirror the civilian outlook. Major Jaswant Singh (BJP) and Squadron Leader Rajesh Pilot (Congress) are fine examples of individuals who made the transition and yet wore their military correctness, rectitude and institutional concerns on their sleeves — yet, never blatantly invoked votes in the name of the uniform or out of step, occasion or legitimate purpose. The unique responsibility of bearing the ‘rank’ and the tag of ‘veteran’ to one’s subsequent callings needs to be handled with utmost institutional concern, dignity and above all, compartmentalisation.
The parallel abuse of the serving ‘uniform’, too, has gone beyond the building of pontoons for godmen and laying mats for public events, under ‘orders’ — now building civilian bridges for railway stations in Mumbai, is par for the course because ‘military precision’ was required! Requisitioning the ‘uniform’ has assumed unprecedented levels — even a wholly political debate of the National Anthem, gets conveniently couched as an insult to the ‘soldier’, as the politicos hide behind the ‘uniform’. The Indian soldier, actually feels insulted by having to sit on the pavement of Jantar Mantar for two years asking for a ‘parity’ (read again, ‘parity’) and then gets booted out from the same pavements, in a new low, as he watches silently the growing portents of his kinetic institution becoming a civilian ‘contractorship’. Both serving soldiers and veterans are part of an inviolable bond of duty towards the nation, affront on one with photo-op and expansive misusage with the other has limited shelf-life.
The writer is a former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry
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