Political careers of former soldiers may seem like an acceptable feature in a democracy, but it would be naive to discount the dangers of politicisation of the military

by Srinath Raghavan

The recent controversy over the opening of roads in cantonments yet again underscores the increasing gap between our civilian and military establishments. The military, including families and veterans, feels that the political leadership took an ill-considered decision guided primarily by the civilian bureaucracy. Although the defence minister has clarified that the army chief was consulted prior to issuing the order, the matter continues to simmer.

Meanwhile, there has been a barrage of commentary, especially on social media. Whatever the merits of this case, it is important to understand the deeper issues at stake.

The fundamental point is the emergence of the military as a significant political pressure group. This is a recent development — and one that does not portend well for our civil-military relations. While the military has seldom been shy of expressing its organisational interests and preferences, this was done predominantly through institutional channels. However, the agitation over One Rank, One Pension (OROP) broke decisively with this pattern. Ahead of the 2014 general elections, influential ex-servicemen groups decided to rally behind the BJP and Narendra Modi. They were obviously fed up with the long unfulfilled promises of previous governments. Still, it was a momentous shift.

Retired soldiers and families are effectively part of the armed forces with strong ties running in both directions. The veterans groups’ decision to strongly tilt towards the BJP naturally risked the apolitical orientation of the military. When the NDA government took its time in figuring out the OROP offer, the ex-servicemen raised the pitch of their agitation.

At the height of this agitation in August 2015, four highly respected service chiefs took the unusual step of writing to the President of India, pointing out that “the recent developments have not only triggered a process of politicisation of the Indian military, but also served to inflict grave damage on its morale and self-esteem”.

The process of politicisation has unfortunately proved difficult to stem or reverse. This is not only because the OROP eventually announced failed to satisfy all veterans groups. Rather, it is because the OROP campaign has become a template for the military to act as a pressure group in politics — one that is at once insistent and savvy in mobilising for the cause. Witness the manner in which military families and veterans have taken to the social and traditional media on the issue of cantonment roads.

While the wider military community may have some buyer’s remorse with the BJP — not least owing to the “Vijay Yatras” taken out by the party’s workers in some cantonments — the wider turn towards interest-group politics is difficult to change.

After all, political parties too have seen the potential benefits of treating the larger defence community as a special constituency. The demand for OROP came handy to the BJP in 2013-14. Recall that one of the earliest rallies addressed by Modi, after his anointment as the party’s prime ministerial candidate, was a massive gathering of ex-servicemen. Equally important was the fact that Modi was joined on the platform by former army chief General V.K. Singh, who had publicly fallen out with the government of the day.

Although V.K. Singh initially claimed to be disinterested in politics, he ended up contesting the elections on a BJP ticket and was rewarded with a ministerial berth. More damaging to the office of the army chief was V.K. Singh’s embrace of the RSS, including donning its uniform at a recent event.

To be sure, he is not the first retired chief to appear on an RSS platform or to sound a note of ideological affinity. As far back as 1964, Field Marshal K.M. Cariappa wrote in the RSS-affiliated publication Organiser that Indian Muslims’ “loyalty seems to be primarily to Pakistan. This is a crime unpardonable”. V.K. Singh, however, has gone (and gotten) farther than any retired chief. And his example will be a gleam in the eye of any senior military officer who harbours larger ambitions.

Political careers of former soldiers may seem like an acceptable feature of democratic politics. But it would be naive to discount the dangers of politicisation of the armed forces once we are on this slippery slope. It is equally credulous to expect political parties to stay out of the fray.

The Prime Minister’s comments on the campaign trail in Karnataka about Nehru’s alleged insults to generals Cariappa and Thimayya are a reminder that this genie won’t go back into the bottle. Yet every government has a stake in ensuring that the military doesn’t continue to operate in the political interest group mode — if only because of its implications for military professionalism and subordination to civilian authority.

The first step in preventing the perpetuation of this trend is to give the military increased stake in institutional systems and processes. As several committee reports as well as academic research by scholars like Anit Mukherjee have pointed out, the lack of integration of the services with the ministry of defence has led to suboptimal outcomes on a swathe of issues ranging from procurement to military readiness. The absence of an institutionalised and ongoing dialogue is also part of the reason why the larger military community feels impelled to mount public campaigns to get its concerns registered.

At the combined commander’s conference in December 2015, the Prime Minister said that “reforms in senior defence management” was an “area of priority” for him. Then defence minister, Manohar Parrikar, is also on record stating that the government was working towards the establishment of a Chief of Defence Staff.

The government, however, has done nothing beyond exploring ways to integrate some of the support and logistics functions of the three armed forces’ commands. Even eminently sensible proposals for cross posting of military and civilian officers between the MoD and service headquarters continue to languish. Unless the government moves decisively towards such reforms, the cracks between the armed forces and the civilian establishment may widen into a crevasse.

Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research