The nonpolitical nature of the army is a support of India’s self-governing and representative institutions. It enables allegiance and faithfulness to the constitution. The political parties and leaders should ensure that it remains the same.
The Modi Government will be celebrating four years of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas this week. It might be useful to factor military lessons from the recent Karnataka election. Prime Minister Modi takes immense pride in his Government’s contribution in strengthening the morale and mettle of the Armed Forces, frequently quoting the surgical strikes, Doklam episode, One Rank One Pension (OROP) and its modernisation through Make in India.
Sadly, this is not the entire truth. If anything, defence is one area where Modi has personally shown minimum interest, which is borne out by the frequency with which he has switched Defence Ministers and ad hocism that has crept in defence management. While he is au fait with the political history of the country, he is comparatively ignorant of the country’s colonial and post-independence history.
My friend, Air Marshal Nanda Cariappa, son of Field Marshal KM Cariappa, India’s first CinC and Army Chief, is quite upset with the faux pas made by Modi about his father’s military record while trying to win over Coorg during the recent Karnataka election.
Even the grand master and wizard of electoral oratory, Prime Minister Modi, in his indefatigable campaign trail in Karnataka, tripped by events of two of Coorg’s military legends to woo the voters. The Kodava is steeped in martial tradition and has been a great warrior from the land from where the Cauvery originates. Modi recalled the gallantry of two military icons and Army Chiefs — Gens KM Cariappa (Kipper) and KS Thimayya (Timmy) from Coorg who set the stage for many of the present-day Indian Army traditions, customs, ethics and coveted values of the military being professional, secular and most of all, apolitical.
By portraying that the two Generals were treated indifferently, even insulted by the Congress Governments in the wars of 1948 and 1962, Modi’s script writers got their military history wrong. Neither was the Army Chief during the wars in Kashmir and China. Timmy was Divisional Commander in Kashmir in 1947 and Cariappa had retired well before the 1962 War.
Modi normally has total command of facts, mastery over the political context and a sharp strategy for shredding the Congress. But earlier this month, he was wide of the target. He said Army Chief Gen Thimayya won the war in Kashmir but was insulted by Jawaharlal Nehru and Defence Minister Krishna Menon. This forced him to resign. The facts are otherwise: Nehru and Timmy were good friends but it was Menon who had problems with him and the other way around.
Menon liked to micromanage the internal affairs of the Army, such as interfere in promotions and posting of officers — an activity which is sacrosanct for any Army Chief. What has not been mentioned in any report are the widespread whispered accounts of an alleged plot of a military take-over by Timmy. One story refers to an interview given by him to a foreign correspondent who asked the ‘C’ question. And he replied: “Search my cupboard for any folder on coup d’etat”. This take-over account was concocted by the Menon camp. Timmy was one of the most dynamic military leaders and one of three Indians who commanded a Brigade in World War II. Timmy was truly a soldier’s General.
Modi messed up the Cariappa episode as well. Cariappa was the first Army Chief, a pucca Brown Sahib and a gentleman’s gentleman. He retired much before the India-China War and rather than being chided and insulted by the Congress for losing the war, was made a Field Marshal 33 years after he had retired. Gen Sam Manekshaw, who was hounded by Menon, was made India’s first Field Marshal, the supreme honour conferred for winning the 1971 War.
It is amazing that nobody in the local media picked up Modi’s slip of the tongue, but I suspect that he did convince the crowds that injustice had been done to the military heroes of Karnataka. Coorg has produced per capita, the highest number of General Officers and their equivalents in India. When HD Deve Gowda was the Prime Minister, he advocated raising a Coorg Regiment in recognition of their service to the country.
The last episode in politicisation of the Army was during the term of Gen VK Singh, now a Minister for rescue and relief in Government, when as Army Chief, he took his own Government to court over his age row. That was unethical on his part. But the UPA Government allowed the affair to be politicised.
More recently, two events have politicised the forces: OROP and surgical strikes. You could add Doklam too. Surgical strikes became the political password to an election-winning spree for the BJP. Pictures of Lieutenant General Ranbir Singh, then Director General of Military Operations, who monitored the operation along with those of Modi, the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and BJP president Amit Shah, appeared on banners and posters during the Uttar Pradesh election.
The actions of Army commandos across the Line of Control became associated with the courage and nationalism of the BJP. Parrikar, meanwhile, would tell stories to the media about how as an Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharak, he had instilled the Hanuman spirit in the Army. In short, besides politicising the cross border operations, the BJP extracted maximum political capital from the surgical strikes.
Even to this day, every political leader in the Government invokes surgical strikes as the new political metaphor for courage, decisiveness and boldness.
The apolitical nature of the military is one of the pillars for India’s democratic institutions which enables loyalty and fidelity to the Constitution, regardless of the political party in power. Despite their political aloofness, the majority of military veterans associate nationalism and military power with the BJP to negate the impression and reputation that India is docile and has abundant strategic patience and tolerance.
After the Kargil war, the BJP and the Congress were on opposite ends in matters of defence and national security when a national political consensus was paramount. Unsavoury comments have been made about the Army by the political class for electoral gains. The lesson from Karnataka election is to keep the military outside the political discourse during elections, enabling it to remain firmly apolitical. The Election Commission of India should lay down red lines that will ensure this. Prime Minister Modi understands only too well, the strengths and sensitivity of the Army while frequently eulogising the surgical strikes. India is the only country in this region where the military has been firmly under civilian political control due to its apolitical disposition. The political class should ensure it remains the same.
(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the revamped Integrated Defence Staff)
Writer: Ashok K Mehta
Courtesy: The Pioneer