Army should be kept out of politics

Admiral Arun Prakash urges that for the survival of democracy, it is vital to keep our military apolitical. Exploiting it for fleeting political advantage carries the real risk of creating a Praetorian monster in our midst.

Egregious neglect of India’s security by successive governments has been a perennial target of censure by commentators for decades. Independent India’s politicians considered this matter unworthy of their time because, so far, it was not a ‘vote-catching’ issue for a public preoccupied with roti, kapda, makan and lately, jobs and agrarian distress. Political survival their priority, politicians were happy to leave the higher management of defence and security almost entirely to the bureaucracy and devote themselves to electioneering.

But the past few months have seen a dramatic shift, with national security taking centre stage in election rhetoric. Since party manifestos provide little reassurance, it remains to be seen whether the show of concern for national security is genuine and enduring or merely a vote-garnering device. Having been thrust into the spotlight, the military must find itself puzzled and discomfited; given decades of political neglect and the current state of civil-military relations.

The crux of civil-military relations, universally, is to ensure that soldiers remain in their barracks and refrain from interfering or participating in domestic politics and governance. This is best achieved by implementing “civilian control” of the forces, exercised directly by elected representatives. Unfortunately, this principle was subverted post-independence. According to American scholar George Tanham, “The role and status accorded to the military, in India, is a clear manifestation of an unbalanced civil-military equation.” He traces its roots to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s pacifism and an anti-military attitude. Nehru also nurtured a phobia of military coups and neglected the military, downgrading its leadership vis-a-vis the police and civil servants.

This Nehruvian legacy has survived successive regimes. Regardless of the party in power, national security has stayed at the bottom of priority lists and the military leadership continues to be deliberately excluded from decision-making. Reforms have been stalled and military modernisation hindered by meagre budgets and a languid bureaucracy.

The past five years have, however, seen the emergence, of some new and seemingly contradictory phenomena. On one hand, the process of downgrading the status of the armed forces has accelerated, overturning the well-established relativities with the bureaucracy, police forces and even subordinate services, not just embarrassing the military but also hitting morale and operational effectiveness. At the same time, hints of political patronage have served to unsettle the officer corps with misgivings about quid pro quo bargains being struck.

The most serious development, however, relates to the assumption of ownership and credit for military operations and their inclusion in election campaigning by political parties. Customarily, military operations–especially those by the Special Forces–speak for themselves and are rarely publicised. While governments may legitimately take credit for ordering military operations, it is when political parties brazenly exploit them for votes and personal aggrandisement that the plot starts unravelling.

The puerile and ill-informed political and media debate about the 2016 cross-border raids and the February 2019 air strikes not only trivialised serious issues but also diluted the message of punitive-deterrence that India intended to convey. Equally damaging was the public perception that serving officers were making statements to comply with a ‘party line’.

Our professional and, so far, apolitical military serves the Constitution through obedience to democratically elected civilian office-holders, without showing preference for any political party or taking partisan positions. Internalised by the Indian military, this principle is a pillar of India’s democratic system and has ensured a peaceful transfer of power after each general election. A politicised military, loyal to one political party or the other, could well start participating in partisan politics. Appropriation of military achievements by politicians could trigger a reverse process, whereby ambitious generals start initiating military operations to please politicians – a frightening possibility.

As far as veterans are concerned, they have the same rights and privileges as private citizens. They may serve with think tanks, engage in public debate and even contribute military expertise to political campaigns. But, they need to remain conscious of two facts: the Constitution accords them the privilege of using military ranks in perpetuity and a strong umbilical cord connects them to serving soldiers. So, when bemedalled veterans, sporting star-studded caps, are seen saluting or genuflecting before politicians, they send a message of subservience that runs contrary to our proud martial tradition.

Similarly, political parties, eagerly enlisting veterans, without a long-enough cooling period, cannot but send negative signals to serving personnel about the benefits of acquiring political ‘connections’ early in one’s career.

For the health and survival of the Indian democracy, it is vital to keep our fine military apolitical and non-partisan. Exploiting the military for fleeting political advantage carries the real risk of creating a Praetorian monster in our midst. 


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