Dear General, please stay out of politics

Illustration: Anand Naorem

ARMY CHIEF VK Singh’s comment on the state of the nation as equivalent to “daldal” (morass) comes as no surprise. The remarks were part of his take on social activist Anna Hazare’s high-voltage agitation against corruption. As a citizen, Singh has every right to an opinion. As a member of the defence services, the right to voicing it is curtailed considerably. As army chief, it is much less so, particularly on politically charged issues and especially so in politically charged times as now.

That the army chief is currently in a tussle with the defence ministry over the controversy surrounding his date of birth makes his remarks mistimed. The decision of the ministry has been in favour of the earlier date of birth, resulting in Singh having to retire next year. The adjutant general has reportedly asked the ministry for the reason. Therefore his comments cannot but be read with his personal predicament as backdrop.

More importantly, the chief has laid himself open to questions from a different angle in his take: “Interesting in terms of how we are witnessing the power of democracy, the power of the people.” The democratic protests that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) has attracted, both in Jammu & Kashmir and the Northeast, have not displaced the army from its position on the continuance of the Act. The fast of Irom Sharmila is into its second decade, to little avail. The move on dilution of AFSPA’s ‘draconian’ provisions has become a political football between the ministries of home, defence and law, since the army refuses to budge. Clearly, it appears that the democratic sensibilities of the chief are only selectively aroused.

The Indian Army’s position can be misappropriated by forces it has little comprehension of

To the chief’s credit is his own record on tackling corruption. That he has identified himself closely with curbing it within the ranks can be seen in his remarks on taking over the baton, “We will focus attention on improving internal health.” In his previous billet at Kolkata, he had taken action in the infamous Sukhna land scam. The graver Adarsh Housing Society scam, involving politicians and bureaucrats, has since scarred his predecessor’s name. Therefore, his desire to personally provide ballast to the national focus on the issue is understandable.

For the military as an institution, the message is loud and clear. A series of scandals has dented its image. Because it expends 10-15 per cent of public monies, being untainted is more than an issue in ethics — it is one of combat effectiveness. Singh is only echoing what he once said, “Until the time our internal health is good, we would not be able to fight the external threats.”

However, the immanent issue is one of civil-military relations. The fragility of our democratic polity, currently fully on display, suggests greater exercise of circumspection on part of the brass. Any overt overstepping of the line of deference rightly calls for a formal check by the minister. The brass is already reportedly under a ‘gag’ to curb its tendency to snipe at the bureaucracy, which in their mind’s eye runs the government. The problem with this is that it further weakens the credibility of the government, showing it up as ‘weak’. This redounds to increase the relative power of the army internally. This may not be in the best democratic interest.

As it is, democratic good health in terms of Parliament’s authority to legislate autonomously is under challenge. That the occasion has enabled a diversionary rallying of conservative formations behind the agitation indicates that the democratic upsurge is equally political as civil society-rooted. The military as an institution is in danger of an unwitting alliance with the conservative forces. Because it has weight in prestige, the army’s position can be misappropriated by forces it has little comprehension of, being politically naïve. Democratic good health can do without gratuitous buffeting of civil-military relations at this juncture.

Firdaus Ahmed is a Columnist,
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