The Armed Forces are an instrument of policy and preference, that is to be chosen wisely amongst the competing tradeoffs between other options that are available to the dispensation of the day. The domain’s interlinkages and interdictions with diplomacy, internal security, economic and socio-economic concerns etc makes it a thoroughly political option, though not a partisan one.
The difference between political and partisan is extremely essential, as the sensitivities of the Armed Forces outlive the various partisan dispensations that come and go.
Therefore, any partisan appropriation of the ‘Uniform’ compromises on what is perhaps inadequately called its ‘apolitical’ necessity, and then infects the realm to political sophistry, that exists beyond the spit-and-polish of cantonments.
India’s 1962 Debacle Was Due To Political Interference
In 2017, before undertaking his ill-fated political assignment as Trump’s Secretary of Defense, the warrior-statesman, Gen James Mattis, had told US soldiers in Jordan, “Our country right now, it’s got problems we don’t have in the military. You just hold the line until our country gets back to understanding and respecting each other and showing it”.
Later, after Donald Trump deliberately wooed the likes of ‘Mad Dog’ James Mattis, to posture his own muscular politics, Mattis was made to inadvertently remember his own words! The uncalled overlay of partisanship and the Armed Forces can overload, obfuscate and make the essentially straight-talking institution, subject to political spin-doctoring.
Amongst other factors, the 1962 Indo-Sino debacle was a direct result of political interferences and superimpositions that needed no Henderson Brooks-Bhagat Report to reconfirm.
Many fatal decisions in the run-up to and during the operations itself were a result of the Armed Forces taking a visible back seat and allowing the political considerations to dominate the airwaves, and defining the larger public narrative, till the unfortunate end.
Importantly, the ground realities had been murkier on the borders and within the Armed Forces, and they were allowed to be so, obscured and compromised to suit the partisan purposes of the day – the primary driver for the costly illusion, were basic instincts of partisan stability and perpetuity.
In 1965, the refreshingly uncomplicated and straight forward ma, that is, Pandit Shastri, saw value in deferring to Military Generals, especially those on the frontline like Lt Gen Harbaksh Singh – and the results were different, as India redeemed itself.
Insulation Of Armed Forces By Political Classes — And Its Results
By 1971, Indira Gandhi — who had seen the consequences of usurping the Armed Forces and their no-nonsense ways in 1962 and when not so in 1965 — wisely chose to acquiesce and support the professional logic and planning of the then Chief, General (later Field Marshal) FM Manekshaw.
This vital ‘insulation’ and yield towards the barracks by the political classes, were by and large respected, and it bore fruits in Kargil, too.
The rightwing NDA government in 1999 benefitted immensely from the sagacious leadership of AB Vajpayee, a man of letters himself, as also hosting domain expertise within its political ranks like Jaswant Singh, who understood the need for measured optics of restraint and rectitude, when it came to national security.
Public briefings on Kargil were conducted clinically and cryptically, shorn of any partisan appropriations or innuendoes. History is replete with telling ‘action-reaction’ binaries, whenever conversations on national security have been conducted with a partisan slant or consideration.
Armed Forces: The Go-To Reference Point For Any Sort Of ‘Deflection’
The centrality of the ‘Uniform’ as a partisan prop is an unprecedented reality since 2014 – it is now invoked liberally in election rallies, movie theatres, social media, television debates (read: dramas) to even during completely unrelated situations like demonetisation (for example: ‘Desh ka jawan din-raat ko khada hota hai, aur tumhe ATM ki line mein khadey honey mein problem aa rahi hai?’).
The institution has become the default ‘go-to’ reference for any convenient deflection, contextualisation (warranted or unwarranted) and ‘manufactured emotionalisation’, whenever faced with difficult questions.
This deflective tact worked efficiently as counter-contextualising almost anything to the Military’s rock-solid image, became impenetrable for opposition or independent questioners. The ‘Soldier’ upended all governmental decisions to look ‘big’, ‘bold’ and ‘never before’, whereas the flummoxed questioners were made look to various shades that started from enfeeble, to anti-national, to even seditious.
But the problem started when the cartographical dispute with the bigger neighbour (and hitherto, ‘unimagined enemy’, after many warm top leadership meets) started to play out, and worse, spill into public disconcertment.
This was an formidable, asymmetric and out-of-script ‘enemy’ from a PR perspective – denial wasn’t an option with 20 martyrs in just one face-off, and the summer of 2020 went into an awkward tailspin of contradictions, wordsmithing and ‘silences’ that barely belied the ground reality that was staring.
Military Needs To Completely Replace Political/Civilian ‘Spokespersons’
The auto-instinctive tendency to ‘speak on behalf of’ the Armed Forces by various partisan leaders led to muddled explanations, which were exposed by international press – who unlike the weak opposition parties, were beyond sentimental ‘need of the hour’ call or any other form of influence or pressure.
The sole question of ‘status quo ante’ was never answered, nor was ‘China’ ever explicitly mentioned, by an otherwise voluble dispensation. ‘No one entered our territory, not an inch of land lost’ — was the assurance!
The Indian Armed Forces continued to do the impossible and defy all known militaristic ‘ratios’ of comparative strength from material, numerical or even from budgetary investment perspective – but invariably so with disproportionate levels of raw courage and ‘ultimate’ sacrifices, that are unmatched in the annals of modern conflicts.
However, an air of perennial uncertainty loomed with the inadequacy of Military ‘Voice’ in the ensuing melee (unlike the Kargil days, where partisan spokespersons were made to take a backseat, even as the situation then was more favourable).
A lot of reckless partisan opinion only added to more questions. It is no ones’ case that the military needs to completely replace political/civilian ‘spokespersons’, however a balance of professional and political clarifications (as done earlier in Kargil), always assuages and nuances, more credibly.
Govt’s Response To Issue Of Chinese Village In Arunachal
The debilitating pandemic turned the mood of the nation towards more immediate concerns for the citizenry like lockdowns, vaccines, job losses, ‘revival packages’ etc — the concerns on the border, were pushed down in the list of urgencies. Occasional statements from the ruling dispensation’s own Member of Parliament from Arunachal Pradesh, Tapir Gao, who flagged the latest concern of a 100-house village in a ‘disputed area’ within Indian territory brought back the issue.
Expectedly, he soon clarified and attributed to the same to the previous dispensations, in true partisan style.
Indeed there will be moves and counter-moves by China in the ‘disputed areas’, which are rightfully claimed as Indian territory, albeit, under the occupation by the other side — that has been the case for decades, but pretending ‘all under control’ or only blaming the past, will raise eyebrows.
There will always be certain operational details that need not be shared for good reasons, yet that cannot be a pretext to posture a completely different situation, from what it is, especially if it is driven by partisan concerns and not national concerns.
The government’s latest clarification on the village issue: “In response, our government too has stepped up border infrastructure including the construction of roads, bridges etc, which has provided much-needed connectivity to the local population along the border” — is certainly true, but the larger picture of the delta of last few months remains mired.
Reiteration Of Armed Forces As Always Above Politics Must Be Insisted Upon
It is important to differentiate that questioning a governmental decision is not the same as questioning the country’s sovereignty, its hallowed Armed Forces or necessarily playing to the ‘tunes’ of the ‘enemy’ – it can also be pure concern, stripped of partisan preference or care.
The seeming diminishment and retreat of the independent Military ‘voice’ if left unchecked in the governance ecosystem, may gravely endanger its ability to give the necessary direction, appreciation and clarifications, when it can only be done so, by its professionals.
The current haze surrounding the security situation in the recent past and the developing status should not be a matter of political one-upmanship, but a matter of sharing the national urgency, as transparently and bereft of fluffy theatrics, as possible. In times like now, discussing uniforms in the Joint Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, seems grossly incongruous.
The reiteration of the Armed Forces as always above politics and its reckless passions, needs to be persisted and insisted. It is an invaluable instrument of governmental-political power, but not towards a partisan end.
The earlier dispensations had undeniably erred on national security and paid for the same by getting voted out, but the incumbent dispensation cannot continuously and solely harp on the past without answering-up to its own recent actions, in matching details and clarity. With too much deflection of questions of national security in the recent times, the concerns of partisan neutrality for the institution is real, and staring.
About the Author
Commissioned in and subsequently commanded 17th Rajput, the author fought in the 1965 & 1971 wars and various counter-insurgency operations in J&K and North East. He was the Military, Naval & Air Attaché for the East & South Africa Region.
Later he was the Military Secretary to Presidents, KR Narayanan & APJ Abdul Kalam. He was the ‘Colonel of the Regiment’ of the Rajput Regiment, President’s Bodyguards, and the Army Physical Training Corps. He retired as the Director General of Military Training. He is currently a columnist for leading publications.
This article was first published in 'The Quint' and has been reproduced with due permission from the author in the larger interest of the military fraternity. Views expressed are the authors own and do not reflect the editorial policy of MVI