It is worrying, says Lieutenant General HS Panag (Retd), that the top brass of the Indian Army is getting too closely identified with religion and the ruling party. In a free-wheeling conversation, the columnist, defence analyst, strategic affairs commentator and author of a book on the Indian Army this year dwells at length on the challenges ahead. Excerpts from his interview to Sanjukta Basu:

You have expressed concerns at politicization of the Indian Army and neo-nationalism; Would you elaborate?

What we see today is different from patriotism or nationalism understood in the conventional sense. Every Indian loves the country, feel proud of the country and that is patriotism. A higher degree of patriotism is nationalism; the independence movement was fought by nationalists. But neo-nationalism is what Hitler built, coloured with a feeling of absolute superiority of the German race. Then he started persecuting Jews.

Would you say the Indian Army is more politicised today than ever before?

Armed forces are generally held in high regard by citizens and politicians do exploit this sentiment. But it can be both positive or negative. Lal Bahadur Shastri coined the phrase, “Jai Jawan Jai Kisan” conveying that soldiers and farmers are our biggest strengths. Today the lines between the armed forces and the regime in power are being blurred. So much so that If you criticise the government for not doing enough to deal with China following border skirmishes in Ladakh, they say you are criticising the Army

What are the perils of such politicisation?

Armed forces should not be seen to associate with political spectacle of any kind. But we have seen the Army involved in mass scale Yoga events. Post demonetisation, political leaders were reported as saying that if soldiers could stand at the border, why couldn’t people stand at the ATM queues. It might have been noble to hold a flypast to honour COVID warriors and shower flower petals on hospitals. But this was being done at a time when China was intruding into Indian territory.

The army’s top brass is perceived to be closely aligned with the ruling party’s ideology. Some statements by the former Chief of the Army Staff about Bangladeshi immigrants, anti CAA protests and his act of decorating and defending the rogue officer who used a human shield in Kashmir, are worrying. Behaviour of the hierarchy percolates down to the soldiers. The Indian Army has always remained a professional army which takes oath on the constitution and owes no allegiance to the political party in power. It must maintain this status. In China the Army is part of CPC’s Politburo; the Pakistan army is a stakeholder in politics. The Indian Army is still apolitical, but the worry is that with the top brass bending with the wind, soldiers can get affected by neo-nationalism

Is there anything that differentiates the Indian Army today from others?

There are checks and balances, transparency and fairness in the West. In the US the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently issued a public explanation to emphasise that a soldier takes oath to the Constitution and not to any leader or religion or party. In June he was photographed together with President Trump outside a Church close to the White House and he publicly regretted it. In India our checks and balances are getting compromised.

Is it justified for a poor country to be the second biggest importer of arms in the world?

We have an unresolved border with both Pakistan and China and we also have to combat insurgencies, so we have genuine security concerns and we need to spend on defence. But definitely it is a strategic failure that successive governments have not been able to secure peace or modernise the armed forces. We are importing heavily because we have not made much progress in manufacturing defence equipment unlike in some other fields like ISRO’s state of the art spacecrafts and rockets.

Why is that so despite growing defence expenditure?

The increase in defence budget merely caters for inflation. Modernisation of the army is at a standstill for the last 30 years. The last efforts to modernise the army began in the 1980s and it was completed around mid-1990s. Since then, there has been no reform; the Defence Budget as a percentage of the GDP is one of the lowest now since 1962.

What would you say needs to be done?

There is a need to optimise the size of our armed forces; ours is a low-to-medium technology army. We need to become a medium-to-high tech army. To do that we must first have a formal National Security Strategy to ascertain what kind of threats we might face and what force structure we require.

Has the experiment of having a Chief of Defence Services worked?

The CDS post is the first step towards reform. It was recommended right after the Kargil war. Despite being the first in the world to have a tri-service National Defence Academy and a tri-service Defence Services Staff College both established in 1949, we appointed the CDS as late as 2020.We are also yet to unify and integrate the tri-services.

There were murmurs of discontent at the appointment of General Rawat as the CDS…

All appointments are approved by the Cabinet Committee for Appointments and the government does not generally interfere. Usually, it is seniority based but merit also rightly plays a role. Out of turn appointments have happened earlier also. There is no reason to question the merits of such appointments. But hasn’t General Rawat been a little too controversial? While I will not question Gen Rawat’s appointment, certain conduct of his as Chief of the Army Staff and now as Chief of Defence Services have not measured up to expectations. His visit to Gorakhnath Mathwas seen widely as publicly associating with a political ideology, and this was not the first time. There was also a photograph circulating which showed him greeting the Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister with folded hands. The proper way for the CDS to greet the CM was with a salute. He also seems to be keen on cutting costs than formulate a national security strategy and optimise the armed forces. He has been tinkering with the existing system, saving a penny here, another penny there, which is incremental.

Unlike in other countries, Indian Army was not engaged fully to deal with the pandemic and lockdown…

The Government should have had the foresight to order the Army to handle the migrant crisis. We are well equipped to manage that kind of situation; Army could have set up kitchens, isolation centres; we have cantonments through the entire route the migrants were walking.

What are the challenges before the Indian Army at the beginning of 2021?

Our national security strategy fell apart at the very first sign of trouble in Eastern Ladakh. The government and the CDS have been claiming that we are fully capable but the fact that we could not take pre-emptive action and couldn’t clear the intrusions are signs that we do not have the desired capability. The difference between our technological military capabilities and that of China’s is frightening. We have not been able to rein in Pakistan despite the Balakot strike and the proxy war has continued. We do not have the high-end technology that can fight and win a war below the nuclear threshold. If these challenges are addressed with the same intensity with which BJP leaders address electoral challenges, all reforms can be completed in the next five years.