“India’s military policy has drastically changed under the leadership of General Bipin Rawat, Narendra Modi and his national security adviser Ajit Doval”, this is how observes Vivashwan Singh, an Indian political activist. His anguish over the politicization of ‘apolitical’ Indian army is visible. India’s DailyO.com news portal, headlined on February 2018 “the fall from grace has been unabated for Indian army.”
The Indian Army has always prided itself on its secular and apolitical character under a wide variety of political masters. But it was when its chiefs did not succumb to plum posts and perks and did not sacrifice their soldiers in pursuits of the political agenda of the government. Now no more those larger-than-life leaders. “Army Chief Bipin Rawat speaking against CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests is wholly against constitutional democracy. If Army Chief is allowed to speak on political issues today, it also permits him to attempt an army takeover tomorrow!!” – tweeted Brijesh Kalappa, a spokesperson for the Congress, as reported in Indian NDTV. Indian political leaders of all hues and shades have expressed their displeasure over gradual politicization of their armed forces under the BJP rule. The Hindu, normally a staunch pro establishment newspaper, had to remind General Bipin in an unusually harsh editorial that army men had no business to comment on political issues “The Army Chief’s remarks could have been discounted as an unfortunate slip of the tongue or a one-off instance, if it were not for the frequency with which he weighed in on matters he ought to have been extremely circumspect about, in public at least”.
The frequency of making vividly political comments, in favour of the ruling party and its political philosophy has not been appreciated by the political class of India, except of course the ruling BJP and its ideological base, RSS. But the lure of perks and elevation to a higher position in defence hierarchy has been so irresistible that Gen Rawat decided to brush aside the decades-long military tradition of staying apolitical. To be honest, political masters have not been disappointing either and have granted the Indian military what no other political party could dare: partial removal of civilian control over military affairs.
The creation of the post of Chief of Defence Staff was a long-held desire of the Indian armed forces to improve tri-service coordination and to be counted in the decision-making process. The BJP not only acceded to the demand but also placed the newly created CDS directly under the defence minister, bypassing the usual chain of command of military men reporting to ministers through a civilian secretary to the government. This brings CDS at a par with civilian bureaucrats of the defence ministry and allows defence forces direct access to the ears of political masters, a dream come true for the Indian military. This development, when seen in the context of the current geopolitical situation of South Asia, only creates fears of an increased escalation.
The BJP tried every trick up its sleeve to come back to power in the 2019 polls. It even took South Asia to the brink of a war when Modi ordered IAF jets to strike alleged terrorist camps at Balakot, Pakistan. The next day, Pakistan retaliated and struck Indian military targets, destroying an Indian fighter jet and captured its pilot. The all high suspense drama was played barely six weeks before national polls in India. As expected, Modi was able to sell the Balakot strike to the masses, projecting a strong man image and got a sweeping majority to run India for another term. But that’s perfectly fine in politics and it is done the world over. What’s so special when Modi does it?
The secret recipe of Modi and his coterie is to stoke tensions on the Pakistan-India border whenever in trouble domestically. Timings of most cross-border tensions between India and Pakistan during 2019 (coinciding with state or federal elections) offer a lot to misgiving of misuse of the professional armed forces of India in furthering the political agenda of the BJP. The Balakot strike and claims made by the Indian defence force of shooting down a Pakistani fighter jet in its wake lacked credible evidence and were never accepted by the international community. The IAF has admitted of a helicopter fratricide on the day of the Pakistani strike. How do you hide operational and tactical failures of this magnitude? Stoke further tensions along borders.
Gen Rawat appeared to have played in the hands of political masters for his personal gains. He has been elevated to the CDS position as reward for his services to the BJP. This has set the expected performance standards from armed forces’ leaders in no ambiguous terms; service chiefs can expect a transactional relationship with political masters.
The appointment of a former Indian army chief, General V K Singh, as minister for road transport and highways by the BJP was the first clear signal to the armed forces chiefs. Gen Rawat did not miss the message and complied to receive a lifetime glory. Temptation would be hard to resist for new incumbent Gen Manoj, who in his first interview after assuming command, further compounded the prevailing tensions by saying “We reserve the right to pre-emptively strike at sources of terror”. The Army Chief said India had “multiple options across (the) spectrum of conflict…to respond to any act of terror sponsored or abetted by Pakistan”.
No wonder Gen Manoj wants to imitate his predecessors in stoking fires of tensions and gain equal if not bigger reward at the end of his term. But this play with the fire can cost dearly to the peace of South Asia and the world in general. The BJP wants to divert the public attention from a miserable economic performance and accusations of rampant politically-motivated corruption in public finances. Indian occupied Kashmir is simmering and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is also a thorn in the back. Pakistan bashing appears to be the last resort of the BJP and its new political ally, the Indian Army.