Monday, 30th October 2017

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A precarious balance

Politicizing security could be a national hazard

By Brijesh D. Jayal
  • Published 23.01.17

In his book, Army and the Nation: The Military and Indian Democracy since Independence (2015), Steven I. Wilkinson of Yale University draws on uniquely comprehensive data to explore how and why India has succeeded in keeping the military out of politics, when so many other countries have failed. As 2016 draws to a close, one is tempted to revisit Wilkinson's study as, of late, one sees a determined effort by domestic forces across the political spectrum to prove these broad conclusions to be somewhat premature.

Without attempting to go too far back in time, it is appropriate to limit oneself to the aftermath of the Uri attacks termed as the deadliest in two decades on security forces from across the border. In retaliation, the Indian army carried out surgical strikes conducted by Special Forces across the Line of Control and successfully neutralized launch pads from where intelligence had indicated that further strikes were planned. Whilst such operations across the LoC are claimed to have been conducted in the past, these were consciously kept under wraps because of the prevailing policy of strategic restraint on a larger diplomatic canvas that permitted the national leadership to pursue various policy options with Pakistan including the possibility of talks.

The difference, this time, was not just the larger scale of the operation, but also, and more significantly, a major policy shift where the government decided to let the international community know of this offensive action. Briefing the media, the director-general of military operations, accompanied by the spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs, announced that based on intelligence inputs, the army had conducted surgical strikes at several launch pads across the LoC to pre-empt infiltration by terrorists. He claimed that this has resulted in significant casualties to terrorists and their supporters, that the operations had since ceased with no plans for further action and that he had so informed his counterpart in the Pakistan army. Most significantly, he said that the Indian armed forces were fully prepared for any contingency that may arise, clearly sending a message that India would respond militarily to any provocation.

To the strategic community, this was not only a major shift in India's strategic approach to cross-border terrorism, but clearly an indication of the burying of the policy of strategic restraint that had been followed by India thus far. What should have been of larger national interest was a debate among the political, strategic and foreign-policy communities on how this major policy shift would have an impact on future relations between India and Pakistan, and how indeed would the deep state in Pakistan react to this move and the resulting national security dynamics.

Instead, it was reduced to the narrow confines of domestic politics. Not completely without reason, some from the Opposition targeted the government for attempting to derive political mileage, with the low point in this exchange being when a senior leader of the principal Opposition party accused the prime minister of " khoon ki dalali" with our military men. Not only will this allegation have been received with dismay by the uniformed fraternity, but in one unguarded moment a seed has been sown in the minds of our soldiers, sailors and airmen as well that they are but pawns in the larger political chessboard of Indian democracy. That this, in turn, will undermine their confidence in the practitioners of our democracy appears to have been of no consequence, since Indian politics has become complacent in taking the apolitical credentials of the armed forces for granted.

Pakistan being a master in psychological and proxy warfare sensed this Achilles heel and promptly denied that such operations had ever taken place, luring some of our political personalities into demanding proof of the strikes. And as some of our ill-informed leaders fell for the bait, Pakistan was quick to furnish this itself as proof. Clearly the general headquarters in Rawalpindi must have drawn immense satisfaction from this reversal of fortunes, where instead of the Indian army's success being lauded within India, it was being ridiculed and doubted by none other than its own political leaders. This will not have gone unnoticed in the bunkers at the LoC or cantonments across India.

Since virtually none of the leaders will even remotely understand why drawing the "special operations" or surgical strikes into the political arena was an insensitive and damaging step to the military's self-respect and morale, it is perhaps worth mentioning that the special forces in any military consist of highly trained specialized personnel, equipment and tactics that exceed the routine capabilities of conventional military forces. To the professional military man, they are a cut above the rest and the missions they perform carry not only a much higher level of risk, but mission failure can result in damage to the prestige of the nation itself. In short, even among die-hard combatants, the slighting of special operations is nothing short of sacrilege.

It is in continuation of this unsavoury backdrop that the latest political drama unfolding both in West Bengal and Parliament needs to be viewed. That the government's policy of demonetization has resulted in a sharp political divide is well known. It is also obvious that there are differing views amongst political and economic commentators resulting in a lively debate. Viewed purely from the prism of the adverse publicity that the armed forces were subject to after the special operations, there may have been a sense of relief that the monetization debate had taken the spotlight off, thus giving them respite from being made the proverbial political football.

But little did the eastern army command suspect that a routine logistics exercise that is conducted annually and was planned to be conducted again with due administrative process of informing the civil authorities, would draw the army back into the political arena, making this respite a very short lived one. The chief minister of West Bengal publicly declared that the deployment of military personnel at various toll plazas was a "clear violation of the Constitution" and a bid to create a "civil-war-like situation in the country". Elsewhere she was quoted as even calling it a military coup. And to add insult to injury, her political party claimed that soldiers had been seen collecting toll at the plazas. Tragically, the armed forces were back at the receiving end of all that is wrong and ugly in our political space and were again being made pawns on the larger political chessboard. Only those privileged to have donned Indian military uniform will understand the deep and personal humiliation that our men in uniform must have suffered at this treatment.

The headquarters of the eastern army command is located in Calcutta merely a stone's throw from the state secretariat and if any move by the army had caused concern to the state authorities, all that the administration needed to do was talk to the army authorities. That the reverberations were instead felt in Delhi and Parliament with many other political parties joining the chorus now shows that even playing with the morale of the armed forces is fair game in the political arena.

As political parties jockey for their respective spaces, they are aware that in politics while there will be winners and losers, the country will always have a democratically elected government. It is time that they reflected on what type of military the nation will be left with, if it becomes a subject of competitive politics - a trend that has only recently become visible.

Wilkinson identifies issues that make it challenging for the Indian armed forces to remain a society apart. Among them are demands for politicians to be seen to share in the national recruitment pie amongst states and communities, disparity in salaries relative to many civilian professions, creeping in of corruption in the officer ranks, an increasing number of incidents including fragging, suicides and insubordination in units and cases where ambitious or powerful officers have tried to draw allies from social and political organizations into controversies within the military. In addition to these, it is higher levels of education, new ideas of rights and citizenship, mass media and modern communications that are creating challenges to the army's ability to retain traditional military hierarchies.

According to Wilkinson, "the greatest challenge to civil-military relations is now not over the traditional concerns of higher command structures and ethnic hedging, but rather from the difficulties that the army faces in trying to remain a society apart. Party pressures, corruption and increasing political and societal efforts to interfere in its workings threaten its ability to retain its traditional recruiting structures and hierarchies and lead to strains on what has been up to now one of India's major successes, the clear divide between the military and politics."

It would be fair to say that even in the two years since the publication of Wilkinson's work, there has been a sharp decline in the "divide between the military and politics". Living through our current security challenges, which are becoming more demanding by the day and political discourse that is becoming shriller, one shudders to look to the future with any degree of optimism. In this unequal partnership of civil-military relations, it is up to the political leadership to take the initiative to set right the balance, before it is too late. Playing politics among political parties is a benign hobby. Playing politics with national security institutions and tempting fate is a lot more hazardous.

The author is a retired air marshal of the Indian Air Force