At the doorstep of Indian military politicization

By Ali Ahmed. Dated: 6/26/2019 10:29:06 AM

It would appear that the air chief, who is to retire this September, is auditioning for a job. While angling for a post retirement job is not unusual for those in uniform, khakis or safari suits, the air chief is likely lining up for a kick upstairs, as no less than India's first Chief of Defence Staff equivalent. This can be made out from his claim that the Pakistani air force did not cross the Line of Control (LC) at Rajauri-Naushera on 27 February, the day after India delivered its reprisal at Balakot for the Pulwama terror attack.
Media reports on his statement at a function at Gwalior air base commemorating the Kargil War's twentieth anniversary draw attention alongside to the Indian statement on Pakistani aggression and air intrusion into Indian air space that day. Explaining this away later, sources in the air force reportedly suggested that intrusion was not by Pakistani air planes but by ordnance used by the Pakistani air force in its stand-off attack on Indian military installations along the LC, which, in the event, missed their intended targets.
Perhaps the air chief - being himself a hero of the Kargil War - got carried away at his motivational talk to airmen at Gwalior air base. He was pointing out that while Indian pilots hit their target a Balakot - a controversial claim - the Pakistanis did not. For their part, the Pakistanis claim to have deliberately missed their Indian military targets, quite like the Indians - according to the Pakistani military spokesperson - missed theirs.
Only a couple of weeks back, the army let on that its two senior commanders in the sector, the army and corps commander, had escaped targeting at the tactical level headquarters that was targeted in an air raid by the Pakistanis. Media reports that the army is in the midst of shifting air defence units to the LC. For its part, the air force, staking a claim to shooting down an F-16 had provided evidence in the form of missile parts that had been recovered from the Indian side of the LC. It is apparent that till the air chief rewrote history, the version on which both sides agreed was that the Pakistanis did come across, even if they exited equally speedily chased away by intrepid airmen led by redoubtable, bewhiskered, Abhinandan Varthaman.
Admittedly, contemporary versions of events are an information war battleground and military history is collateral damage in conflict. However, for the air chief to go overboard in the manner he has must have something more to it. Of the two possible explanations above - the air chief wanting an extension and playing to the gallery at an air base - the former unfortunately may hold more water, and there lies the trouble.
Rumours are rife of an impending defence structural reform. Many commentators are making a pitch for these, arguing that the renewed mandate with an enhanced majority allows the government to do more for defence, in particular implement the reforms left over from the post Kargil era when these were first put down in the recommendations of successive review panels. The chief of defence staff equivalent appointment is a holdover from the period. The intervening governments did not have the political heft.
The current government set up a defence planning committee (DPC) under its national security adviser (NSA) early last year. It is amply clear that two of its four sub-committees, namely, on policy and strategy and plans and capability development, cannot but have a chair higher than the three chiefs. Neither can the chairman chiefs of staff rule against the other two, nor, without a conflict of interest, rule favourably on his service position sent up by him as its chief. No civilian can substitute since the defence secretary is of an inferior rank to the three chiefs. The NSA, though a man-for-all-seasons, being head of the DPC, cannot also head the two subcommittees, howsoever much he may like to play the role of the chief of defence staff. While he displaced the cabinet secretary from the strategic policy group headship, he cannot also displace a military man from heading the two sub-committees. So the government is likely to be considering elevating a military man at long last to the post of chief of defence staff equivalent.
Since the government has the option of deep selection, having set a precedent in doing so with the selection of the army chief last time, who it will appoint - if it does - is a matter of speculation. The Americans once reached down some thirty slots to elevate Colin Powell to head the joint chiefs panel there. Even so, there are two lead contenders: the air chief who hangs up his wings in September and the army chief who hangs up his boots in December.
It is no secret for readers of this publication and in this part of India, that the army chief has endeared himself to the government in his leading the army. The army chief has constantly piped up on the government's Kashmir policy. The personal interest is in his justifying to himself - as much as to others - his controversial elevation to the job based on his counter insurgency expertise, and also the government's line through its first term resulting in over 600 youth dead. The army latest play of music for the ears of its political master has been the rejection of any notion that surgical strikes were also carried out by the opposition when in government. These - to the northern army commander and its operations branch - were patented by the Modi-Doval combine. This appears to be a bit of dual positioning - the northern army commander for the army chief's baton while the army chief has the chief of defence staff chair in his sights.
The maneuverings have acquired competition. The air force has gone out of its way to bolster the ruling party head's questionable claim that some 300 terrorists perished in its aerial surgical strike. The claim turned the tables on the opposition that had till then seemingly clawed its way back based on the traditional issues as unemployment, farmers' suicides, rural distress, economic mismanagement etc. With Pulwama and its riposte at Balakot, the narrative changed.
If only the fight had stayed at the political level. Engineering a false flag operation - such as at Pulwama - cannot be put beyond the intelligence agencies. It is already clear that they were the first converts to the cultural nationalist ideology of their political minders. However, for a service to pitch-in unmindful of the traditional stipulation on being apolitical is concerning. True, the tradition has taken a beating of late. The last air chief while demitting the appointment trashed the narrative of 'strategic restraint' - the strategic doctrine of the predecessor government he had once served - in line with the then newly minted Modi government's redefining of India. Such revisionism is of a piece with the writing of a military history of South Asia's wars by a former air marshal, which at the very outset reveal cultural nationalist inspiration in his take - shared with Hindutva ideologues - that Moghuls who once ruled and lived in India were foreigners.
In the instant case, the air force - presumably miffed by the opposition's calling out the government's grandstanding - jumped into the fray. Not only did the air force serve up ammunition in support for the government's position on the curious Rafale deal, but also pushed inordinately for taking the government's word on Balakot. It lent its professionally authoritative status and credibility for political use of its political masters.
If the air chief does not have an axe to grind - and he is by all accounts an honourable man - then can it be inferred instead that the air force was put to it? This possibility is the worse one, with implications for civil-military relations in terms of politicization of the military. It bespeaks of a military brass that is politically deaf, lacking spine, ideologically persuaded or all three combined.
This is the outcome of the precedent set by this government in the army chief's appointment. The brass was served notice to speak what the government wishes to hear. This has set up the scramble. Whispers have it that a current frontrunner for next army chief has links with the new ruling party working head, dating to their juvenile friendship. The selection of a chief is a visible manifestation of potential politicization, politicization itself is what could follow: swallowing of the cultural nationalist bait by the military.
Over the coming term, the government may interpret its mandate expansively, believing that enhanced voting in its favour allows it to finally get down to the Hindutva project. This may entail constitutional changes 2022 onwards when it has control of the Rajya Sabha. If de jure changes are arrived at in a legally valid procedure - and do not fall afoul of the Supreme Court's jealous guarding of the doctrine of basic structure of the Constitution - the army has absolutely no role or say. Therefore, the government would be well-advised to sensibly keep the military at professional distance. It can do without overkill in trying - in the interim - to shape the military's political understanding in line with its thinking by an unnecessary bear-hug in its civil-military relations.
(Ali Ahmed is visiting professor at the Nelson Mandela Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia.)

 

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