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Friday, May 09, 2014

india's brass

India's brass: What the controversy misses
By Firdaus Ahmed
The movement of a particular file within the corridors of South Block is being watched very closely by partisans involved who then speedily convey its location to their acolytes in the media. The file's movement is expected to result in an announcement on nomination of General Suhag as the next army chief on Bikram Singh demitting office in end July. The defence minister has assured that all procedures will be followed. Media commentary has nevertheless served up yet another agenda item to divide the attentive public into two: those for the government or those against it, not only in general but also on this particular score.

In the discussion the major point emphasized is that the military must not be politicized. It is interesting that both sides are using the same argument. Those on the BJP side suggest that undue haste in declaring the successor by the Congress-led government is to ensure that their nominee is in place. This would ensure a 'line of succession' forged by its pushing out of VK Singh from the chief's office a year before he was due to leave. The opposite view is that not nominating the next chief's successor timely would be to allow BJP to politicize the process by its possibly passing over Suhag as chief. Currently, the next senior in line is an army commander who incidentally is related to VK Singh.

However, this is only the ongoing row. Anticipating the forthcoming row would also be in order. In the widely expected case of the government changing to one headed by the BJP what could likely happen will make the current controversy pale in comparison. If the BJP gets into power, it could consider overturning the announcement of the successor of the chief and undertake the same process yet again to arrive at a different name of successor. Procedurally it will no doubt be well taken care of by bureaucrats piloting the file past the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet; this will by far amount to greater politicization.

By no means is this the only possible future. Firstly, the Congress may get cold feet and leave the appointment to the next government. Secondly, the BJP may not come to power and a third front or a Congress led minority government may have no problem with the changeover. Thirdly, the BJP may choose to stick out the tenure of the next chief. The latter is not impossible to visualize since the BJP may well be deterred. It would be blamed for politicising the appointment. If it appoints the general related to VK Singh, it could be fingered for favouritism, particularly since VK Singh may also be in the legislature by then.

It may also be able to live with Suhag since Suhag would be on the defensive from the beginning under the impression that the government is averse to him owing to the controversy preceding his appointment. Compromised thus, he may be more willing to play along. The example of the sacking of Admiral Bhagwat in the initial period of the earlier BJP government could make him bow even where he need not. Even if it does not pressurise Suhag, as a professional he would be faced with a choice of complying or resigning. In case it does show Suhag the door, the BJP would reason that it is not so much politicising the brass as much as applying a necessary corrective to politicization by the Congress.

Therefore, the possibility of a forthcoming controversy over the near term that is much worse than the ongoing one over the impending announcement of the chief designate is yet at an arms distance, though not remote. It can unfold as early as month end.

However, the more significant point is not so much the personalities involved or the issue of politicization of the appointment of army chief. The latter while important in itself is more so because of the subsequent politicization could upturn the apolitical character and image of the forces.

Even if in a hierarchical structure such as is the army, the chief carries much weight, the military's apex functioning is collegial with the major decisions being taken at the biannual army commanders' conference. Therefore, having a politicized chief is not enough to have critical mass in politicizing the army. The top order needs working on equally. A politicized chief serves a useful function in opening up the military for further politicization over time by enabling the conditions that make only those with right political credentials to rise in the hierarchy setting its political tone and texture as an organisation.

For most part, the scope for politicization is restricted by the professional and technical content of the military's social function. Since by all accounts it is kept out of the loop on key decisions, it is not particularly worrying as to who gets to be chief. Most reaching the rank of army commander are of equal professional worth, so individuals are not of much consequence either. However, the significant issue is that the shift in grounding of professionalism of the military, from an objective to a subjective mode.

Currently, the military is taken as exhibiting objective professionalism. This implies that its input to national security decision making is unbiased, frank and forthright. While it can be accused of having organizational interest clutter such input often, such as in the case of its input on

Siachen or on AFSPA for instance, overall, the Indian military has been credited with practicing objective professionalism.

However, the problem is that with the BJP coming to power, particularly if it is unencumbered by any coalition partners, it may prefer a subjective model of military professionalism. This is the critical issue that will face India and its military over the forthcoming BJP tenure, if it comes to it. It would be a tribute to the professionalism of the Indian military in case it survives the encounter with religious nationalism with its moorings intact. It has been hypothesized earlier by this writer that this may prove difficult in light of the nationalist subcultures waiting on wings for just such an opportunity to 'take over' as the dominant subculture and to eventually dissolve other subcultures, including that of professional and radical professional within the military.

Subjective professionalism in a military implies an obedience that comes from imbibing the ideological predispositions of its civilian superiors rather than basing input on the objective coordinates of a situation. This implies that even if in olive green, the brass could well think saffron. Not only would the government have to bear the opportunity cost of an advice it wishes to hear, but also its consequences. To illustrate, even if retention of Siachen is taken as strategically sustainable, in the nationalist subculture this would owe not to the strategic coordinates of the argument, but for a 'weak' India to overcome its millennial strategic sloth and display its six-pack finally.

Therefore, if an act is to be judged as politicization, a key criterion would be the intent and consequence. The unseemly controversy being raised is only partially about the ambitions of VK Singh, a BJP party candidate. It betrays an intent to take over what is widely regarded as a professional institution with an intent to subvert its professionalism from objective, to the extent it is, to subjective, that it has lately exhibited a potential towards (as pointed out in this column from time to time).

The threat of politicization is not about a military taking over the government but the government's ideological orientation taking over the military. A possible future is that the military will no longer be a professional military of a secular state, but a religious nationalism inspired military serving a majoritarian state. However, by no means is this a 'done' deal yet.

Considered against this yardstick, the Congress' move to get a new chief in place before it demits office, in keeping with the supposed 'chain of succession', is positively benign. It is a defensive maneuver out to protect the army from appointment of a political chief, who would then open up the army to right wing inroads. Consequently, the current controversy over the appointment of the army chief is but a symptom of a wider syndrome out to beset India that may manifest in the army as politicization, soon.

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