A day apart, there were two contrasting views about the “apolitical” Indian military. Yesterday Lt Col CR Sundar, President Tamil Nadu BJP ExServicemens’ (ESM) Cell, emailed me a note sent off to others well in which he said, that ex-Servicemen, to quote him “should shed the veneer of being apolitical and take to directly involving ourselves in politics” and that BJP is deserving of their consideration because “of their nationalistic outlook, candour, integrity of showing equal concern to all religions and their unfailing support for the Indian Armed Forces.” His comment was apropos ex-Army Chief General VK Singh sharing the dais with Narendra Modi at an ex-Servicemen’s rally in Rewari, Haryana, Sept 15 called to demand “one rank, one pension”.
Then Col Sundar said “Monetary benefit is not everything” and that ESM should get involved in grassroots politics and stand for elections panchayat-level up. “Lawmakers such as MLAs and MPs don’t just happen”, writes the colonel. “Today’s councilor is tomorrow’s MLA. Today’s MLA is tomorrow’s MP. Only if we cultivate the grass root today can we have enough lawmakers to be able to change the laws where required and better enforce those that are existing.” The senior retired officers, he concludes, are simply “not smart enough to comprehend the possibilities.”
This morning in a Times of India op/ed former CNS Admiral Arun Prakash (Retd) conceded the growing disrespect shown the Indian military as reflected in its “leadership [being] publicly excoriated and humiliated with regularity and snidely accused of disloyalty, by proxy, through media” for which he blamed the political class and especially the Defence Ministry bureaucracy. He, however, suggested that ESM keep off involvement in electoral politics because owing to their “umbilical” links to their respective services they may, he feared, end up politicizing the military “by osmosis”.
To better address ESM grievances and avoid these from being presumably parlayed into participation in active politics, the Admiral recommended that the Department of Ex-Servicemen’s welfare in MOD be headed by a retired senior officer and manned by ex-military personnel, which is an excellent solution.
But ADM Prakash avoided the basic theme underlying Colonel Sundar’s note and something that few people have seriously considered: Should ESM from a voluntary citizen army be content with merely voting for political parties of their choice and canvassing solely for additional monetary benefits in their retirement package, or should they as citizens get squarely into electoral politics and, hopefully, by a process of reverse-osmosis, clean up the stinking rat-hole that is Indian politics today? It is, of course, possible, even likely that former soldiers, sailors and airmen once in will succumb to the temptations and the lure of easy money available to persons in political posts. But, hearteningly, the record so far is of upright ESM being upright politicians! Consider the likes of Major General BK Khanduri, former Roads and Transport Minister in Vajpayee’s cabinet and later CM of Uttaranchal Pradesh. There was not remotely a taint of wrongdoing against his name, and did he not perform far better than cradle-to-death professional politicians? The upright and no-nonsense ADM Vishnu Bhagwat (Retd.) likewise got involved in Janata Party politics in his native Bihar.
The point to make is something larger. The ESM can no longer be on the sidelines and complain like everybody else that the current lot of corrupt and venal politicians is running India into the ground and ruining what remains of its prospects. They can choose to campaign for more than some extra rupees in their bank accounts at month-end by way of retirement dues; they can work to change the system from the inside rather than looking in and getting appalled by what they see by doing nothing about it.
An ‘apolitical’ military is a fine thing and so it should remain. But the pathological fear of the Indian military among the Indian political class and bureaucracy is unwarranted. This fear was institutionally seeded by Jawaharlal Nehru who apprehended the virus of army coups d’etat staged — the first time in Pakistan by General Ayub Khan in 1958, infecting the Indian military. Some fifty years later that apprehension ought to have been moderated by the political class, but it hasn’t been.
The fact is India could do with many more Khanduris and Bhagwats at the central level, and more ESM at the state, town, and village government levels, who by dint of character and inflexible values begin cleansing the system and righting the ship of state that is beginning to take a lot of water.