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Monday, May 26, 2014
the citizen - politicisation in the context of the indian military
Politicisation: In the context of the Indian military
Politicisation of a military is usually uncritically accepted as ‘bad’. In the democratic scheme, politicization implies impetus within the military to displace an elected government. Since a rash of such action was visible in newly independent states across the fifties and sixties, there was a consensus in political science theory and military sociology that politicization was a negative phenomenon. In the subcontinent’s context, the experience of Pakistan and Bangladesh with political militaries more or less sealed the argument against politicization. However, a milder interpretation of politicization is in the military aligning its perspective to suit the political positions and interests of the government. This is the current threat of politicization in India. The military may be inclined to play spectator, under the professional instinct of keeping out of politics.
A third variant of politicization arises in the circumstance of the incoming government having an expansive agenda that may not be readily visible in the near term, the military would require acting as a deterrent against any fundamental changes to India’s polity that the government in keeping with its ideological inclinations may want to engineer over the long term. In this the military may end up taking on a political role, but one that is in keeping with a third interpretation of politicization that is relatively benign. In this version, in case the government attempts to reframe constitutional fundamentals, then there have to be checks and balances that include the military in last resort political role. Since other bastions of state and society may fall along the way side, the military may require standing up for India.
The current debate in India surrounding politicization is over the propriety of the outgoing government to appoint a new chief in its final days, namely General Suhag. However, the controversy itself goes back a bit to the ‘date of birth’ controversy raked up by a former chief and recently elected legislator from Ghaziabad, retired general VK Singh. His argument was that denial of his case for a year’s extention at the helm of the army was to keep alive the proverbial ‘chain of succession’ that had been forged earlier with the appointment of General JJ Singh as chief. Since seniority and age left to retire are crucial criteria for back of the envelope calculation of the ‘chain’, it gets easy to see who are in the queue. An extention for VK Singh would then have resulted in the incumbent Chief not making it and, ditto for General Suhag. An alternative line up would then have made it.
That the government nevertheless acted the way it did is taken by those criticizing this as politicization of the military. Specifically, they are apprehensive that the government was responsive either to what it perceived as a political inclination of prospective chiefs or that of those in the alternative line up. Either it found the former relatively amenable or the latter comparatively worrisome. Amenability does not necessarily imply that those in the line-up were politically inclined, but it could even mean that they were politically neutral or could be expected to remain so. Therefore, for critics to say that either the incumbent chief or the chief designate is political is to stretch things too far.
Instead, the Manmohan Singh government would have been more inclined to be worried by political inclination of those in the alternative line up. By this reasoning, in taking a decision against that line up, by showing VK Singh the door, it was persuaded not so much by a desire to have its man in place as much as to ensure that India does not end up with an inappropriate chief. Such a chief would have been more likely to be politically inclined rather than professionally grounded, particularly when answering to a government of a different political complexion.
The danger itself is pretty old going back to the fifties when Krishna Menon sought to politicize the military through foisting on it generals acceptable to Nehru, such as general Kaul, whose names lives in the ignominy of 1962. For Nehru, the aim was perhaps to have his man – an ethnic kin to boot – in charge so as to control the militaristic tendency that military’s in newly independent states had started showing across the then decolonizing world. Nehru, fearful of the first form of politicization, pitched for the second form of politicization in trying for a subjective control over the military through Kaul. Kaul clearly was an ‘inappropriate’ choice for it did lead to politicization with Kaul and ‘Kaul boys’ trying to outmaneuver professionals such as SD Verma, SPP Thorat, ‘Timmy’ Thimayya and not to forget, Sam Bahadur himself. In the event, both Nehru and Kaul burnt their fingers with the 1962 debacle. Not unreasonably, politicisation has thereafter got a bad name so much so that today charges of politicization are used by both sides in the current controversy to deride the other.
Therefore it behooves investigating what exactly does politicization mean in the context of the present as the hindu nationalist party, the BJP, seeks to stride up Raisina Hill to take the oath of office. The proposition here is that the BJP will try for the second form of politicization – subjective civilian control – to keep the military politically inert and create the necessary space thereby for it to go about its agenda for India that goes beyond its election related focus on development.
While a ‘normal’ government would likely prefer a politically neutral professional military, in the case of the BJP led by Mr. Modi, it is self-confessedly an ideologically inspired government coming to power not merely for tenure at the helm, but to reboot India. There is an expansive agenda of the government not readily obvious from manifestos and speeches. It can be better discerned from the program of the right wing and religion inspired political formations on whose back it has partially ridden to power.
While politicization is negative in general, in such circumstances the third variant of it may not be such a bad thing. In case the reimaging of India is pursued with the vigour that is predicted here to attend it and doing so generates instability for India as a nation and society, then there may be a case for a military to step in to deter and if necessary make such a government back track or step aside. The ability of a military to see its role in this circumstance will amount to a political judgment and action in line with this will be political action. In effect it would be politicization, but a benign one at that.
While traditional politicization with the military on horseback is not the threat, there is likely in the near term the turn to subjective civilian control of the military. This could be sooner than later in case General Suhag finds himself on the block. It could be later since the regime is set to outlast him. The military would need self-regulation not to fall for this lest over the long term it is unable to fulfill a guardian role it may be called upon to fulfill to preserve India’s constitution when majoritarian push comes to extremist shove.