Why soldiers of the nation must be in Parliament

Prime Minister Pandit Nehru in conversation with Lt. Gen. K.S. ThimayyaBY MAJ GEN (RETD) DHRUV KATOCH

The recent release by the Australian author Neville Maxwell of the Henderson Brooks report pertaining to the 1962 debacle has once again drawn attention to the state of civil military relations in India. The near total domination of the armed forces by the civilian authority has its roots in post partition events in the region, which saw democratically elected regimes overthrown by military coups and created a fear psychosis in India’s ruling establishment of India suffering a similar fate. Nehru’s worldview, where he saw the military as an instrument of colonial power, further added to the distrust. Even in the best of times, civil military relations in India have maintained but a façade of civility. For the most part, they have remained mired in distrust and suspicion of the other, fuelled largely by an obdurate bureaucracy, intent on preserving its fiefdom and instilling fear of the military in the minds of the political leadership. While civilian supremacy over the armed forces is accepted in democracies the world over, and is an article of faith in the Indian military establishment, it refers to political and not bureaucratic control. It was the civil military disconnect which was largely responsible for slippages and deficiencies in India’s defence preparedness in 1962. Sadly, the situation has not improved much since then.

The poor state of civil-military relations leads to undesirable outcomes whenever issues concerning the armed forces are highlighted. Letters written by Service Chiefs to the Prime Minister giving out the state of preparedness of the country’s armed forces receive negative publicity whenever they find their way to the media, with some even questioning the propriety of the military in highlighting such issues. A routine move by two army units near Delhi led to panic among some in India’s bureaucracy, as a possible coup attempt! There is also a reluctance to discuss matters having a bearing on national security, which is perhaps why infrastructure development on our border areas remains pathetic. The role and performance of the defence public sector undertakings (DPSU) rarely comes under the scanner, enabling them to offload whatever they produce to an unwilling clientele. An example is the Tatra vehicle. Manufactured in the Czech Republic, it is imported by BEML, an Indian public sector undertaking (PSU) in a knocked down condition through a UK intermediary Tatra Sipox. After reassembling by BEML, it is sold to the Army at well over its original price. The Ashok Leyland Stallion (ALS) vehicle, manufactured by Ashok Leyland Defence Systems based in Chennai, is transported in knocked down condition to the Vehicle Factory, Jabalpur, another DPSU, where it is assembled and resold to the Indian Army, again at heavy cost overruns. The blueprints of the Bofors gun were available with India, yet the gun was never indigenously manufactured. Production of the Tejas aircraft has been inordinately delayed and we are still not producing a world-class rifle, something which has been done by a small country like Singapore. The list is endless.

To improve matters, there needs to be greater discourse on defence and security issues in the political domain. With the dates for the general elections being announced, many veterans have entered the political fray, which is a positive step. Surprisingly, this too has come in for criticism from some quarters on the specious grounds that it will lead to the politicization of the armed forces, some even using terms such as “soldiers of the party” for such veterans. Nothing could be further from the truth. An increasing number of veterans being part of all political parties, not just the two mainstream ones, augur well for the country. Firstly, they can form part of the party think tanks dealing with defence and security issues and provide valuable inputs to their party leadership. Secondly, as some will in due course of time get elected to Parliament, issues pertaining to defence can be adequately discussed and debated in the House. An increasing number of veterans in the political system, representing all shades of political opinion will improve understanding of the way the armed forces function and allay the sense of disquiet that some people still feel. Most importantly, it will lead to improved policies and better utilisation of the scarce resources of the country on security related issues.

While shrill voices keep getting raised against defence personnel entering the political arena, the counter narrative is rarely given space in the mainstream media. This is counterproductive. In a democracy, it is important that all issues pertaining to India’s defence be debated, rather than being confined to a one sided diatribe against the armed forces. As an example, Christopher Jaffrelot, writing in the Indian Express of 5 March 2014, expressed his angst against veterans joining the political arena, dubbing them as “soldiers of the party”. Jaffrelot’s anguish appears highly motivated. In any event, he lacks the depth of knowledge of the Indian Armed Forces, which could give his views any legitimacy. As a Frenchman, he must know of the stellar role defence veterans from France have played in the political life of their country. Why then is Jaffrelot so worried about Indian veterans joining politics? Moreover, Jaffrelot betrays his political bias when he accused this author of being aligned with the RSS and criticising the UPA-II in an article “Combatting Left-Wing Extremism”, published in “The Organiser”. Even a cursory glance at the article would have convinced even a dimwit that it was apolitical, academic in nature and merely highlighted the Naxal problem, giving at the same time certain recommendations for conflict resolution. These views have been expressed in open forums, have been spoken of in Doordarshan and All India Radio and have been published across the political spectrum to create greater awareness among the public on an issue, which the Indian Prime Minister describes as the greatest internal security challenge facing the nation. The UPA-II or any other political dispensation, found no mention. Evidently, Jaffrelot did not bother to read the article, which lays him open to the charge of lazy journalism. If he has, he throws himself open to the charge of intellectual dishonesty. It is for him to answer. But more importantly, it is precisely this one sided stance, which militates against a reasoned discourse on the role of defence personnel in public life. Mainstream media therefore, needs to give the counter view to permit analysis of situations, which are important to India’s security concerns and not allow falsehoods and innuendos to be bandied about as the truth.

The famous French statesman and journalist Georges Clemenceau, famously said “war was too important to be left to the generals”. This is undeniably true. Nevertheless, the counter to that statement has equal relevance.  In the parody, “Dr Strangelove”, General Jack D Ripper replies… “But today, war is too important to be left to politicians. They have neither the time, the training, nor the inclination for strategic thought”. An infusion of veterans across the political spectrum in India could perhaps be the right way of negotiating between the two viewpoints.

(Major General Dhruv C Katoch (Retd) is presently the Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi)