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Are the armed forces becoming politicised with nationalism and security being cornerstone of 2019 election?

The 2019 Lok Sabha election has been the most vituperative the country has witnessed with nationalism and security issues forming its cornerstone. Has this hyperbole impacted the armed forces especially when Prime Minister Narendra Modi's election campaign took off following the Balakot air strike and was succeeded by the launch of the anti-missile A-SAT expected to increase the country's deterrence capabilities.

Apprehension about this excessive amount of hyper-nationalism the nation has witnessed has had its impact on the armed forces also because 150 retired veterans sent off a letter to President Ram Nath Kovind expressing concern over this politicisation.

Major-General SG Vombatkere (retd) who had coordinated this effort believed this was done to "request the president to advise all political parties not to use the army in furtherance of their political agenda" as this would affect the apolitical character of the army and thereby adversely impact national security. The Balakot air strike against the backdrop of the Pulwama terror attack has continued to form one of the cornerstones in this long drawn-out election. It is expected that the ruling party will take credit for this military action, but the nastiness of the rhetoric being used across all political classes is alarming.

On Monday, BJP president Amit Shah at an election rally claimed both "the Congress and Pakistan were upset at the Balakot air strike. Were the terrorists' Rahul's cousins?"

Colonel Shivdan Singh (retd) feels this criticism against the ruling dispensation is unfair. "Every government in the past has been highlighting its achievements. In 1971, Indira Gandhi did the same thing following the war to liberate Bangladesh. Many of the signatories of this letter are undoubtedly senior officers but lending their signature to this letter reflects their frustration. Many of them were hankering for a governorship or an ambassadorship and since they have been denied this by the present government, they have blindly signed this letter," said Singh.

There are others who believe that the manner in which the Rafale debate has played out resulting in the Congress name-calling the prime minister. 'Chowkidar chor hai' has seen the morale of the armed forces dip. Finally, it was left to the prime minister to go public and state that instead of making such allegations, "there should be a debate over why controversies have been created over defence deals since Independence". Modi insisted this was being done deliberately to weaken the army. "Should I worry that they are making personal attacks on me or whether my country's needs should be met?" the prime minister asked.

 Are the armed forces becoming politicised with nationalism and security being cornerstone of 2019 election?

File image of Narendra Modi with personnel of security forces. Twitter @narendramodi

This is a point of view reinforced by the BJP that believes such slogans are deliberately aimed at politicisation of the forces.

Other veterans refuse to wade into this debate. Lieutenant-General Inder Verma (retd), who was military secretary during the Kargil War, is emphatic in his emphasis that "the Indian Army is apolitical. It has always been apolitical and it will remain so in the future. We owe our allegiance to the Constitution and not to any political party."

But Lieutenant-General Zameeruddin Shah (retd), author of the book Sarkari Mussalman believes the excessive hyper-nationalistic rhetoric being vented in this electoral campaign is indeed affecting the armed forces. Shah cites his own example where his former retired army colleagues have gone to the extent on social media of telling him that since he belongs to the minority community, he should go and live in Pakistan.

"The cloak has been shed. A large number of retired officers have become communalised, including some of my own colleagues. I am very disappointed. I have retaliated and shown my anger at their comments asking them how they had the guts to tell me to move out of my country," said Shah indignantly.

The fielding of the Malegaon blast-accused Pragya Singh Thakur is but one example of taking this hate crescendo to higher decibel levels especially since the local BJP leadership in Bhopal is known to have opposed her candidature. Defending the selection by the RSS of a candidate who is out on bail on terrorism charges, Modi told a TV channel, "One woman, that too a sadhvi was humiliated in such a manner. In Amethi, they (Congress) have a candidate (Rahul Gandhi) who is out on bail, in Raebareli, they have a candidate (Sonia Gandhi) who is out on bail, but there is no debate on that. But if the candidate from Bhopal is out on bail, there is so much outcry. How can this go on?"

After her nomination, Thakur muddied the waters by stating that the ATS chief Hemant Karkare died in a terrorist attack because she had cursed him. Julio Rebeiro, chairman of the Retired IPS Association slammed her remarks saying Karkare had been one of the finest IPS officers and Thakur's remarks would hardly go down well with the present crop of serving police officers.

Maharashtra minister Pankaja Munde, contesting elections from the Jalna Lok Sabha constituency in Maharashtra, also made a vituperative attack against Rahul for having questioned the air strike in Balakot. Munde said, "Rahul Gandhi should be tied to a bomb and then blasted off to Pakistan."

"Given that two of his family members, grandmother Indira and father Rajiv Gandhi, met with such violent ends minister, Munde would be expected to have shown greater sensitivity," said woman activist Sujata Madhok closely associated with Saheli.

"The role of the Nehru-Gandhi family in the development of modern India is undeniable. I am shocked that the Election Commission did not take her to task for this remark," said Madhok.

Major-General Ashok Mehta (retd) believes governmental interference in the appointment of the chief of armed forces is another example of politicisation.

"The armed forces follow the principle of seniority but General Bipin Rawat superseded two senior officers and the rumour then was that the reason for his appointment was because he hailed from Garhwal as did the NSA chief Ajit Doval. Now the same thing is happening in the appointment of the next navy chief. Why are we deviating from the principle of seniority? The three chiefs of the armed forces should have the guts to raise this issue before the defence minister," said Mehta.

The Congress has also adopted an increasingly aggressive stance with Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala describing Modi as a "habitual offender in credit seeking for the valour and sacrifice of our armed forces".

If all these thrusts and counter thrusts were not bad enough, Modi raised the pitch at an election rally in Barmar stating that India was no longer scared of Pakistan’s nuclear threats. "Every other day they used to say we have the nuclear button, we have the nuclear button. What do we have then? Have we kept it for Diwali?" asked Modi.

Dr A Gopalakrishnan, former chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, believes the prime minister should have refrained from dragging nuclear issues into the heat and dust of electoral matters.

"It is far too serious a matter to be discussed in an election rally. One would have expected better from a prime minister. If the use of a tactile nuclear weapon can result in the death of around 1,000 people, the devastation caused by nuclear weapons is beyond imagination," said Dr Gopalakrishnan.

Air-Vice Marshal Kapil Kak (retd) also feels nuclear weapons should be kept out of elections. Kak also expressed his concern at the 'coarseness' of the language being used in this election. "The armed forces must not be brought into the political battlefield. Nor does any political party have the right to claim credit for any military action," he said.

Kak further believed that the increasing emphasis on nationalism by the ruling party was resulting in the increasing "militarisation of our society. We are girding up the entire country for a non-existent challenge (against Pakistan)" going on to state that India was much more statesmanlike when it came to its relationship with China.

"Instead of bread-and-butter issues being the cornerstone of this elections, we have taken up with the rhetoric of nationalism and hyper-security. There is a major agrarian crisis that has reached a distressful situation even in the prime minister's own state of Gujarat, which has seen the failure of cotton and groundnut crops. But these issues have been totally bypassed," said Kak.

BJP ideologue Sheshadri Chari, editor of Organiser, refuses to make much of the letter sent by armed forces veterans to the president. "Is there any particular instance (of politicisation) that they have referred to in their letter? If so, we could have taken action on it. But that is not the case. Regarding Modi taking up the Balakot air strike issue — what do you expect him to do, keep quiet? The Opposition parties are taking their criticism too far. If government was using army officers during their campaign, this criticism would have some validity but this is not the case."

On the whole issue of hyper-nationalism, he felt it was a question of interpretation. "The ruling party has one interpretation of it, the Opposition has another interpretation," said Chari.

Strategic expert Pravin Sawhney, editor of Force magazine believes it is the present government that has made terrorism a key issue in its campaign. "What in the past were described as low-level counter-terrorism operations have been taken out of the closet and given a high-profile title like 'surgical strikes'. To generate so much publicity around it will impact the forces," Sawhney stated.

Professor Happymon Jacob of JNU, whose recent book titled Line on Fire: Ceasefire Violations and India-Pakistan Escalation Dynamics explores how the increasing incidents of violence at the LoC are clearly linked to the increasing language of hate and abuse being used by India and Pakistan.

"Between 2004 and 2008, there were between four and seven violations along the LoC. The reason for this was because both nations were conducting a comprehensive dialogue on Kashmir while in 2018, when vitriolic levels had risen to a crescendo, there were 2,500 violations along the LoC," said Jacob.

"When our prime minister says he has given complete independence to the armed forces, he believes things will not spin out of control. He does this to offset the criticism about the political class not doing enough to stem the violence. But when a leader says Mooh-tod jawab doonga, the media and the soldiers and officers pick this up as they do the vitriol that they see every day on our TV studios. The army is no longer insulated from politics as it used to be. Obviously, it too will be influenced by this negative rhetoric," said Jacob.

Jacob saw this first-hand in the course of the 85 interviews he did with officers and soldiers from across the LoC where the excesses of the Kargil War had been embedded in the historical memory of soldiers from both the Indian and Pakistani armies.

Jacob claimed, "The issue of security has become the biggest rallying cry in the country. The corollary to this is that violence has its political utility. Firing is being done on both sides of the border and this is a culmination of several factors. If the peace process is on, there is no firing and when there is no peace, we are witness to this toxic cocktail of heightened nationalism."

Chari, on his part, claimed that some amount of rhetoric is bound to creep into a political campaign especially "since Modi has to wear the hat of a political propagandist". He has to do this in order to win at the hustings, he said.

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Updated Date: Apr 29, 2019 12:38:21 IST