These are challenging times for the Indian armed forces. The soldiers who are capable of facing and overcoming any existing and emerging security threat, including a two-and-a-half-front war, now find themselves facing a battle they are not trained into — a threat from within, from the politicians.
Recently, an election campaign banner of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) prominently displayed the photograph of Prime Minister Narendra Modi alongside the gallant air warrior Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, who shot down a Pakistani F-16 jet. The soldier similarly found place in the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)’s banner, while senior Congress leaders, not wanting to be left behind, did not lose much time in doubting the impact and efficacy of the air strikes on the Jaish-e-Mohammed camp at Balakot inside Pakistan on 26 February.
Against their will and without their consent, the armed forces have been dragged into the political discourse by India’s political class, after being previously degraded by them with the status equivalence move.
Post-surgical strike 2.O, and the events thereafter, politicisation of the apolitical Indian armed forces has gained momentum. Political parties across the board have joined the race to garner votes by exploiting the public sentiment, with utter disregard of the implications.
This trend, if not arrested, will be detrimental to the effectiveness and efficacy of the armed forces. Given the politically-charged environment with the world’s largest democratic process having been kicked off, it remains to be seen to what extent the political parties will stoop in dragging the soldiers, sailors and air warriors — both living and martyred — in their battle for the ballot.
There is no denying the fact that PM Modi-led NDA government had demonstrated an unprecedented politico-military will in carrying out surgical strikes — first in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, and now inside Pakistan. The September 2016 surgical strike, after the Uri attack, triggered the interest and imagination of the nation.
Its success was exploited by the BJP in the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand in early 2017. This exploitation was understandable to an extent as Modi had staked a fair amount of political capital in carrying out the surgical strike. The election campaign posters displayed soldiers in uniform, which again was unprecedented, and led to a race among politicians of all shades and stature joining the bandwagon.
Once started, there were of course no qualms among the political parties to exploit the sacrifices of the soldiers, at times making a mockery of the last rites of a martyr, wherein more than a few unashamedly used the solemn occasion to their advantage without paying any heed to the pain and anguish of the next of kin.
This was more pronounced after the Pulwama terror attack where 40 CRPF personnel were martyred. Politicians seem to have realised the value of the Indian armed forces in furthering their political careers at no costs to themselves, but with major ramifications for the armed forces.
The Indian armed forces are by far one of the most battle-hardened and combat-rich forces in the world. They are also apolitical, competent, committed, courageous and secular. Politics has always been a big no among the armed forces. One of the first diktat given to a young officer on joining the service is that there are four topics on which discussions will be a taboo in the messes — politics, movies, women and finances.
Fortunately, for the better part of the 70 years, the Indian armed forces have remained untouched, insulated and isolated in their cantonments. This in itself has been a major factor contributing to their ethos, character and effectiveness. On the other hand, politics is known to be divisive, based on caste, creed, religion and region.
It was heartening to see all parties endorsing and supporting the 26 February air strikes at Balakot. But the maturity shown was short-lived as within days, political leaders were busy getting involved in verbal duels — the politicians of the ruling BJP claiming a huge number of terrorists having been killed, and the opposition parties demanding evidence, with some doubting, the efficacy of the precision strike, much to the delight of our adversaries and the international community. The occasion required all the parties to speak in one voice but then our politicians do not look beyond the immediate vote.
The next nine weeks will be the most testing times. And if not checked, the armed forces will have to take a hard look on how to retain their apolitical ethos. This will be difficult as soldiers are sensitive and simple, easily swayed by opinions. Compounding the complexities is an easy and constant access to the news media and social media platforms.
This is an appeal to all political parties to leave the armed forces alone and fight their own battles. Fortunately, the Election Commission has issued an advisory, asking the political parties to desist from using photographs of defence personnel as part of their election propaganda.
Pray and hope that sanity prevails and the armed forces are left to do what they are mandated to and are best at – ensuring national security. We owe it to the nation.
The author was former DGMO and Colonel of the Para regiment. He is currently the Director of CENJOWS – the center of joint warfare studies, the official think tank of the tri services.
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