September 27, 2022

Politicisation plagues military hierarchy

This article is not about General Rawat’s understanding of military jointness and warfare but about saying so in public – a disease that of late has afflicted the military hierarchy.   

A tweet from Pakistan Strategic Forum reads: “Declaring the world’s fourth largest biggest Air Force as “Supporting Arm” of Indian Army like “Artillery & Engineers”, speaks volumes regarding Indian Military Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) General Bipin Rawat’s caliber and knowledge of modern warfare.” “A counter to this posted on social media said: “Stupid Pakistanis! They should have declared him the greatest soldier who ever lived, awarded him a medal and then sit back with a coffee and watch him destroy cohesion of the Indian Military.”

By Lt Gen Prakash Katoch (Retd)

Pakistanis have also been passing snide comments like “band master” about uniform worn by the CDS given that even the US Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, senior most military officer in the US and principal military advisor to the US President wears the uniform of his own service, not a different one.

General Rawat’s comment on the Indian Air Force (IAF) apparently was because his effort to posthaste push through Theatre Commands faced glitches. But differences are to be ironed out in-house. Airing anger in public over differing perception in this manner is in poor taste to say the least. But this article is not about General Rawat’s understanding of military jointness and warfare but about saying so in public – a disease that of late has afflicted the military hierarchy.   

Service Chiefs of yore generally spoke to the press after assuming office of the Chief and on the annual day of the concerned service – Army Day, Navy Day or Air Force Day as the case may be. Beyond this, Service Chiefs spoke to media or held press briefings very rarely under exceptional circumstances.

In recent years, this trend has reversed with the military hierarchy keen to ‘appease’ the political party in power through periodic public statements; forgetting that the military’s loyalty is to the Constitution of India not to any political party. Politically motivated statements do enable shortcuts up the ladder but where is the military ethos – dunked on the altar of self-promotion?

As Army Chief, General Rawat endeared himself to then Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on issues like opening military cantonments and making defence land available for sale. Later in Sitharaman’s avatar as Finance Minister he recommended disabled Army personnel who continue to serve should not be exempted income tax; something authorised to all security forces personnel and civilians since 1922. 

In recent years, this trend has reversed with the military hierarchy keen to ‘appease’ the political party in power through periodic public statements; forgetting that the military’s loyalty is to the Constitution of India not to any political party. Politically motivated statements do enable shortcuts up the ladder but where is the military ethos – dunked on the altar of self-promotion?

Even as Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC), General Rawat had nothing to say about government inaction to address anomalies of various pay commissions that have eventually brought the military below police forces. Periodic stoning of soldiers in the Valley causing injuries and even deaths were given the go by, as was use of brutal police force against peacefully protesting veterans. More time was spent on issues like CSD Canteens – today every item in a BSF canteen is cheaper than CSD canteens. However, his remarks for jawans to shun pakoras since they cause obesity did provide some humour.  

Appearing in media periodically, Army Chief, General Rawat’s political statements like with respect of CAA and NRC did attracted attention. A former Vice Chief of Army Staff wrote in his article ‘Indian Military has No Business Wallowing in Politically Turbulent Waters’ published in December 2019 of the adverse impact of senior military officers making statements in media; cautioning that a politicised military is one that exercises loyalty to a single political party.

CDS General Bipin Rawat though four-star is one of the secretaries in the Ministry of Defence (MoD) where all decision making is through the Defence Secretary. The Defence Secretary addresses him ‘Mr. Secretary’ in correspondence ignoring his rank. The CDS is principal military advisor to the Defence Minister, not Prime Minister as it should have been.

Instead of laying a wreath at the memorial during the last Navy Day, the CDS went to address a private school function in Uttar Pradesh to appease the political masters. He has been advocating extension of retirement age in the military and ‘Tour of Duty’ – which is what the Afghan Army and PLA have; short tenures for soldiers with all the attendant disadvantages.

General Rawat as Army Chief had been warning of a two-front war. How then did the Chinese surprise us in Ladakh in May-Jun 2020 and that too after constructing a new road five km short of Galwan? Media quoting MoD officials says we knew PLA could occupy these new locations in 24-36 hours but never thought they would do. This is typical politico-bureaucratic language. Threats are based on enemy capabilities not intentions which can change overnight.

When the Bofors scandal had erupted, Ministry of Defence (MoD) held a press briefing. General K Sundarji, then Army Chief, sitting on the dais was questioned by a journalist about pricing of the Bofors guns. His response was that Bofors is a good gun but questions regarding pricing should be addressed to the Defence Secretary, not to the Army Chief. Today you find pricing of the Rafale and other imports being defended in public by the military hierarchy. Worse still is justifying Chinese intrusions in Ladakh by backing the politico-bureaucratic line of “not even one inch of territory lost.” Such statements could have been easily been avoided.  

General Rawat as Army Chief had been warning of a two-front war. How then did the Chinese surprise us in Ladakh in May-Jun 2020 and that too after constructing a new road five km short of Galwan? Media quoting MoD officials says we knew PLA could occupy these new locations in 24-36 hours but never thought they would do. This is typical politico-bureaucratic language. Threats are based on enemy capabilities not intentions which can change overnight.

Fact is more the military hierarchy bends, more the ‘deep state’ will push them into the mud. An enterprising journalist says, “Most young officers I usually interact with are growing increasingly enraged and genuinely disappointed by senior leaders.”

It would be naïve rushing into Military Theaterisation.  It is not a game of chess. Military transformation of which Theaterisation is a part did not happen overnight in the US, China, Germany and elsewhere – certainly not like India where a CDS is appointed and told you do this in your five-year tenure. In China, military transformation began with President Jiang Zemin. In the US, Joint Forces Command was established as the transformation laboratory, followed by the Goldwater Nichols Act. We already have joint commands in Andaman & Nicobar Command and Strategic Forces Command but what are the resources in the former?

Finally, there is a suggestion circulating that for the ‘politically keen’ senior military leaders, government could institutionalise a ‘Tour of Duty in Politics’ in their last three years of service. This would give them all the time to make political statement, provide extra hands to political parties and save the military from getting muddied.

Theaterisation must be deliberate over a period of time and should not put us at disadvantage if war is thrust upon us midway. Many strategists have opined that only an Act of Parliament like America’s Goldwater-Nichols Act or Germany’s Berlin Decree can bring about required transformation in our Armed Forces. Instead of leaving it to the CDS, government could appoint a ‘Committee for Military Transformation’ with representation from the three Services and the National Security Council Secretariat (NSCS) to undertake such an exercise.

Finally, there is a suggestion circulating that for the ‘politically keen’ senior military leaders, government could institutionalise a ‘Tour of Duty in Politics’ in their last three years of service. This would give them all the time to make political statement, provide extra hands to political parties and save the military from getting muddied.

-Lt Gen Prakash Katoch (Retd) is a veteran of Indian Army. Views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of https://strategicaffairsindia.in

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