by Yoginder Kandhari

Has the carapace of political neutrality of Indian Armed Forces (AF) finally been broken? So feel the concerned citizens including most senior veterans. In a chat with the media on this New Year’s Day, the outgoing COAS was hiding a smirk when he said, ‘armed forces stay away from politics…’. Unfortunately, his three-year tenure was marred by General’s controversial public pronouncements; at times politically loaded ones. Latest one to draw sharp criticism, from opposition parties and senior veterans alike, was his veiled condemnation of opposition leaders protesting Citizenship Amendment Act. It was a needless foray into the realm of politics.

In a democracy, AF functions as per the Constitution under the directions of the elected government. They are expected to remain politically neutral. Regrettably, in Indian context this principle appears to have been largely compromised in recent times.

Of late, several top serving AF officers have been caught wallowing in troubled political waters. Be it serving Air Force officers’ defence of financial and offset terms of Rafale contract or the Eastern Army Commander commending Government’s decision to go ahead with CAA; political undertones therein can’t be missed. Are these prodromal symports of politicisation of the AF? Well, one may hope not but the facts tell a different story.

It would be unfair to blame only the Generals for blurring the distinction between the ruling party and the AF. Political dispensation at the helm, riding its strong electoral mandate, has, wittingly or unwittingly, set in motion subtle politicisation of the military. In psycho-ideological terms, since 2014 Indian public has been fed on a craftily woven narrative about a grand conspiracy, hatched internally in tandem with external forces, against the nation. Conspiracy might indeed exist but, as Istiaq Ahmed observers in context of Pakistan in his book ‘The Pakistan Army in Politics – Origins, Evolution, Consequences’, ‘it can also be a self-fulfilling prophesy’.

Generals, some hand-picked by the government, are keen to oblige their political masters. While there is no denying government’s prerogative to appoint anyone, even out of turn, to top posts in AF, phenomena of politicisation of the hierarchy and senior officers cosying up to politicians for promotions remain a natural corollary. 1962 debacle was direct result of similar environment prevailing then. A ‘committed military’ in line with ‘committed bureaucracy, police force and judiciary’ is likely to be a dreaded scenario. Rubbishing Army’s proposal to formulate a code of conduct for veterans, a senior veteran wittily Tweeted ‘The time has probably come for the veterans to draft a code of conduct for the Generals in service’.This veteran was probably alluding to recent political appointments from among the serving and veterans.

Not only the serving, even veterans are to blame. We often see political parties sponsoring senior veterans, wearing full regimental accoutrements alongside of party symbols, to TV and other debates to advance their political arguments.

In run up to 2019 general elections, BJP, brazenly politicised armed forces’ bravery and martyrdom. The ruling party put up billboard displaying photographs of Wing Commander Abhinandan and Pulwama martyrs alongside those of Modi and other party leaders. Enraged, 150 veterans compelled Election Commission to intervene. We were also witness to a sorry spectacle of political leaders taking credit for cross-border surgical and Balakot air strikes, Yogi Adityanath dubbing Indian Army as ‘ModijikiSena’ and much more. By doing all this, military was held out to be an extension of BJP by default.

In this political melee, even opposition did not come out unscathed. Their demand for proof from the Government, to establish surgical strike did indeed happen, was as reprehensible as was calling Army Chief a ‘Goon’.

Lt. Gen D S Hooda (Retd.), Army Commander who oversaw 2016 cross-border surgical strikes, laments ‘Military (is) being increasingly drawn into the political discourse, it is being used to win political arguments, it is being used as something which generates success in the elections. And that frankly is worrisome’. His scepticism is not at all misplaced. If this trend continues unchecked, military will lose its apolitical character so essential to a democratic setup. Political parties must remember that the cardinal principle of AF is to maintain their secular character and an apolitical profile. Nation would stand to lose in case this edifice of political neutrality of AF is breached.

We are fully aware that democracy did not take firm roots in our neighbourhood because their AF got enmeshed in domestic politics; military either overthrowing elected governments or orchestrating regime changes. Over the last 72 years, Indian AF have stood firm by an internal code prescribing political neutrality. This ethos has ensured peaceful transfer of power between successive governments. It is a national imperative to ensure that our military retains its apolitical character. In a vibrant democracy, governments come and go but AF would continue to serve the nation irrespective of the party in power.

Looking ahead, the new COAS, a cerebral General, has so far been measured in his press interactions and has sworn ‘allegiance to the Constitution’. That is reassuring.