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Army veterans' letter: Dragging the President's Office into murky political games sets dangerous precedent

Ahead of elections, signature campaigns against the BJP and Narendra Modi, in particular, are nothing new. As detailed in a previous Firstpost piece, this tactic seems to have become quite popular as the prime minister seeks a return mandate in 2019.

The effectiveness of this signature campaign in terms of swaying voter mindset isn’t proven. The "open-letter" campaign, however, still retains popularity ostensibly because it gives Congress a plausible deniability, ensures discomfiting headlines for Modi during election season and it isn’t very difficult to get Modi critics from different sections of civil society to sign a letter urging the electorate to oust the man who according to them is a singular threat to their 'idea of India'.

These exercises in futility from a few writers, filmmakers, artists, economists and even superannuated bureaucrats and technocrats cause little blip beyond the media radar but a worrying trend has emerged of late that deserves better attention. If this nudge-and-wink tactic involved only the civil society, apart from inducing mirth at the delusion of "liberals" and their sense of exaggerated influence, little harm would have been caused.

However, now that some former soldiers have been roped into this exercise and even the office of the President — the highest in the land — has been dragged into the mud of partisan politics, this campaign deserves closer scrutiny.

 Army veterans letter: Dragging the Presidents Office into murky political games sets dangerous precedent

File photo of President Ram Nath Kovind. PTI

At the outset, questions may be raised against the move by army veterans seeking President Ram Nath Kovind's attention. What the was the pressing need to involve the Constitutional head into the murky political affairs? If the 150-odd army veterans were protesting “politicisation of the army” and their aim was to prevent such an occurrence, was their cause helped or hindered by the spectacle that followed the release of such a letter in public domain?

There could be only one reason why presidential attention was sought (at least via media) on this issue. Addressing the letter to the president instead of an amorphous group called "public" ensures gravitas and instant media attention. When retired soldiers step into the political ring to voice their displeasure about the way Modi government is "politicising the armed forces" and send a letter to the Supreme Commander of the Indian Army, then the political campaign against Modi gets credibility and legitimacy that is otherwise hard to come by.

It is inconceivable that veterans from the armed forces would be unaware of the protocol while seeking the attention of the President over an issue which concerns them. Was Kovind's approval obtained before he was made an inadvertent part of the signature campaign? Why wasn’t an appointment sought to meet India’s Constitutional head?

As army veteran Major General Dhruv Katoch, in a Facebook post, addressing the signatories of the letter, writes, "Would it not have been appropriate to take a delegation with prior appointment to meet the President, apprise the Supreme Commander of the concerns, and then hand over such letter personally to the President? Or do you hold that your Supreme Commander does not warrant such courtesies?"

Interestingly, while the letter, ostensibly signed by 156 retired soldiers, was addressed to the President, it found its way into media, social media and even the Opposition made it into a poll plank, but it apparently never reached the President. The missive, which carried the names of three former army chiefs, four navy chiefs and a retired air chief and other veterans and condemned Yogi Adityanath’s ‘Modiji ki sena’ remark, requested the President to step in. Rashtrapati Bhavan said it has received no such letters.

Even as the President’s office issued a denial, the “letter” was widely quoted in social media, mainstream media and the Congress used it to target the BJP.

More questions arise. Were the veteran soldiers unaware that this could lead to further politicization of the army — prevention of which was their primary motive — since it targets only one political dispensation? As an apolitical unit, the armed forces have always maintained an arm’s length from politics. By jumping into the fray on poll-eve, creating a splash about addressing the President and making available the contents of the letter to media and Opposition before it reaches the Constitutional head of India to whom it was addressed to, were the retired soldiers preventing politicization, or aiding it?

Moreover, at least three signatories have later confirmed to the media that they never gave their consent. Former Army Chief General Sunith Francis Rodrigues called it “a classic manifestation of fake news”. He told ANI: “I do not know what it is all about. All my life, we have been apolitical. After 42 years as an officer, it is a little late to change. We have always put India first. I do not know who these people are and it (the letter with names of officers) is a classic manifestation of fake news.”

Former Air Chief Marshal NC Suri levelled a more serious charge while talking to ANI: "This is not Admiral Ramdas’s letter (purported letter written by armed forces veterans to President) & it has been done by some Major Chaudhary. He has written this & it was coming on WhatsApp & emails (sic)." The former Air Chief added: "My consent has not been taken for any such letter. I don’t agree with whatever has been written in that letter. We have been misquoted. 2/2."

ANI also quoted former Army Vice Chief Lt General ML Naidu (as 20th in the list) as saying that his consent wasn’t taken.

If the much-publicised letter carries names of some retired soldiers without their consent, it is clear that entire exercise is guilty of the same crime — politicisation of the army — against which ironically it takes a moral stand. Who gave a few veterans the right to represent others on an issue of this seriousness without their express consent? Why were various representative bodies, that retired soldiers are a part of, kept outside the loop? Do 150 retired soldiers represent the will of all army veterans and reserve the right to set the political narrative?

Finally, this letter is different from civil society missives in a significant way. It pits the armed forces against the elected government of the day, creates a binary and asks the President to act as the umpire. This may set a dangerous precedence for dissent, disobedience and damage the integrity of Indian Army that has always acted as the sword arm of the civilian government of the day, not the other way round as in Pakistan.

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Updated Date: Apr 15, 2019 13:26:57 IST

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