Let Rafale and Surgical Strike Fiascoes Not Hurt Our Ability to Wage War: BD Jayal

Carl von Clausewitz was a military theorist who stressed the moral and political aspects of war. His treatise ‘On War’ is considered a standard text to military doctrine and is a study material in military leadership establishments across democracies. The text has many aphorisms, of which the most famous is: “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” Politics here refers to the larger principle of governance, of guiding or influencing government policy with the welfare of the state in mind.

It is unlikely that a majority of practitioners of politics in our democracy today would have heard of this text, let alone enlightened themselves on its finer points. Considering the current level of political discourse, it is doubtful whether they even comprehend the difference between this higher aim of politics and electoral politics, which today appears far removed from the interest of welfare of the state.

The reason why this text needs to be mentioned is because, of late, Indian electoral politics, through which the process of national governance is born, appears to be wounding the state’s instrument of war, namely the military. In this convoluted way, our ability to wage war is becoming a victim of politics by other means.

This brings us down from the exalted heights of a classical text to the mundane level of national dailies, where two competing narratives are currently vying for public attention.

The first is a directive issued to universities and higher educational institutions across the country by the University Grants Commission to observe September 29 as the ‘Surgical Strike Day’ and to celebrate this in a befitting manner by conducting various activities.

It will be recalled that on this day two years ago, in response to a militant attack army personnel in J&K in which 19 army personnel lost their lives, the Indian Army had undertaken surprise attacks by special forces on seven terror launch pads along the Line of Control and inflicted significant damage. Such operations by their very nature carry an element of surprise, are conducted by special forces and carry a very high level of risk to those involved. They are also meant to convey a subtle message to the adversary and are not advertising tools.

This action in later public discourse came to be termed ‘surgical strike’, and, rather than be considered as another tactical action by the army in the face of a decades-long proxy war in J&K, it seems to have been adopted by the government as a landmark event justifying commemoration. By glorifying one specific tactical action over others, we undermine the dangers, challenges, successes and sacrifices that our soldiers are facing and making on a daily basis including the conduct of such high risk actions where necessary. This may appear good political optics, but it is bad for the morale of those in the daily line of fire.

Regrettably, a tactical commando action has now become the subject of political one-upmanship. This bodes ill not just for the morale of the force but also their respect for the moral values of the civil leadership under whose authority they derive their legitimacy to serve and fight, and to kill if necessary.

The second narrative being played out is the very vocal and concerted attempt by the opposition to label the recent government-to-government agreement for the purchase of much needed combat aircraft to shore up IAF’s seriously depleting force level, as involving corruption and cronyism.

So ugly has the Rafale debate become that the IAF top brass have indirectly jumped into an unfortunate political fray. A Rafale fighter jet. Credit: Denis Balibouse/Reuters

It may be recalled that towards meeting the IAF’s requirement for a medium multi-role combat aircraft, the MOD had floated a global tender for 126 aircraft in 2007 after having floated the first ‘Request for Information’ as early as 2001. After comprehensive technical and flight evaluations, the GOI shortlisted two aircraft and after due commercial process, identified the French Rafale as the winner in 2012.

There are differing narratives on why contract negotiations for the Rafale did not make headway while the previous government was in saddle and with with the change of government the original proposal to buy 18 aircraft outright and licence produce 108 at HAL was dropped and the government-to-government route chosen to make an urgent outright purchase of 36 aircraft. It is worth noting that virtually all major aircraft purchases in the recent past have been through the government-to-government route, examples being the C-17 Heavy Lift transport, the C 130 J Hercules, P-81 Maritime Reccee aircraft, Chinook Heavy Helicopter and others. The principal reason is that a Bofors syndrome still haunts our defence procurement system and few are willing to stick their necks out and take decisions where the open tender route is concerned.

This action of the government has now been faulted by the opposition on many counts, not least of which are crony capitalism, higher prices, corruption, and a leader of the principal opposition party dubbing the PM a thief. So ugly has this debate become that, for the first time, top brass of the IAF have come out publicly in favour of the process, thus indirectly jumping into an unfortunate political fray.

Ironically, amidst all the finger pointing, the one issue that seems to be of least concern to all is why it should have taken national governance eight long years (fourteen years if RFI is considered the starting point) to have taken a decision when the IAF is seriously deficient of its combat squadron strength. This clearly shows how our politics is about other peripheral issues and not about keeping national security and welfare of the state foremost in mind.

It is not the purpose of this piece to delve into which side is right or wrong in either of the narratives mentioned above. It is only to remind ourselves that the armed forces are not only watching these developments with dismay but no doubt debating it and following it on social media and perhaps being driven by one side of the argument or the other. Since both these narratives relate to the respective armed service, its operation and leadership, any perception driven by other than professional agenda is harmful to the unity of the military, the morale of the forces, and their confidence in the civil leadership, whatever be its political colour. We then run the risk of introducing a dangerous cancer of politicisation in the military that is injurious to the health of civil-military relations and of our cherished democracy.

It is imperative that political parties draw a mutually agreed, self-imposed line beyond which electoral politics will not stray into military affairs. Let any such issues instead be deliberated within constitutionally mandated institutions to ensure confidentiality, probity and accountability. In our bitterly fractured polity, whilst the temptation to take advantage when a political adversary appears on weak ground or to exploit a political opportunity may appear legitimate, let politics by other means not hurt our ability to wage war.

Brijesh D. Jayal