Using Army as fodder for parochial politics

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Using Army as fodder for parochial politics

Wednesday, 01 February 2017 | Ashok K Mehta

Using Army as fodder for parochial politics

The Government should conduct deep surgical strikes against Delhi's Parliament, which seldom functions and where 30 per cent of the members have one or more cases of murder, rape, kidnapping etc against them

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president Amit Shah said demonetisation and surgical strikes would be the two key planks of the electoral campaign in the five poll-bound States. Its national executive (on January 6) referred to the strikes as out-of-the-box and in consonance with its zero tolerance to terror policy. In Goa and elsewhere, Minister for Defence Manohar Parrikar has been credited with planning and conduct of surgical strikes which he has attributed to his RSS training. Parrikar is known to spend more time in Goa strategising the election there than in strengthening the defence of the country. But the BJP has launched a stealth operation called Veiled Projection of Parrikar as the chief ministerial candidate of Goa.

The Congress’s Sachin Pilot has accused Parrikar of being disinterested in his job and not living up to his appointment. The military is mesmerised with Parrikar’s one foot in Panaji and the other in New Delhi. The  problem for the BJP is that some of the opposition parties have doubted the veracity of the strikes, saying those have not ended cross-border terrorism. It is also not the case that the strikes led to tranquillity on the border. This happened largely due to new Pakistan Army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s resolve to keep the border quiet.

Using surgical strikes to win votes will politicise military operations and the Army. Further, debating surgical operations that politicians least understand, at public rallies, will be most improper. Winning the 1971 war was a world apart from the surgical but not deep  strikes.

The Government has deservedly and quickly lavished 32 awards for personnel of 4 and 9 Para Special Forces who carried out the strikes, making it the most highly decorated single operation in the history of the Indian Army. Soon after the strikes, Parrikar attended a party rally at lucknow where banners and posters carrying the pictures of DGMO lt Gen Ranbir Singh — the public face of the surgical strikes — surrounded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Amit Shah and Parrikar, were seen. Pictures of Army officers appearing on election posters violates Army rules, traditions and military ethos. Prime Minister Modi also visited lucknow, the centre of gravity of the Uttar Pradesh election, where he was presented the ceremonial mace as the ultimate conqueror of the enemy. The trailer of the political harvest of the surgical strikes was shown in parts of the State last year. Although demonetisation is a double-edged weapon, it has been portrayed as a surgical strike to rid the country of corruption fake currency and terrorism. None of these objectives has been significantly achieved .

During the Kargil war, the BJP claimed major victory for evicting the Pakistan Army Northern light Infantry disguised as terrorists from key heights in the Kargil sector in some of the most amazing uphill infantry battles, which, like the surgical strikes, were generously rewarded with a profusion of gallantry awards. The opposition Congress blamed the Government for colossal intelligence failures at strategic and tactical levels and questioned it for making a scapegoat of Brigadier Surinder Singh, the Brigade Commander who was sacked by then Army chief, Gen VP Malik. Even as the hills and mountains were being contested with the lives of Indian soldiers, a parallel war was being fought by the two parties which extended beyond the termination  of hostilities — the Congress taking up legal cudgels on behalf of Brig Singh. Not only was the border skirmish severely politicised, but the spat between Gen Malik and Brig Singh also got coloured as a battle between the Government and the Opposition. It was bad for morale of the Army.

There is every likelihood of a repeat of a Kargil-like post-surgical strike electoral skirmishing between the BJP and the Opposition in the States going for elections — except possibly Manipur. The BJP is determined to extract maximum mileage from what it has showcased as Modi government's historic decision of surgical strikes into Pakistan which was the first time any Government had owned responsibility for the operations. The Congress will contend that under its charge, the Army had carried out similar operations but these were kept under wraps.

The bone of contention, though, will be the fact that despite claims to the contrary, terrorism has not ended and attacks after the surgical strikes have continued. The electoral battles with posters featuring Army personnel at the heart of the operations, including those decorated on Republic Day, will become objects of a tug of war. One hopes that the Election Commission of India (ECI) belatedly places an embargo on using pictures of Army personnel associated with surgical strikes. Such use will unnecessarily unravel the secrecy of operations and lead to political mud-slinging to the detriment of the honour and sanctity of the Special Forces.

It is true that the target-specific multiple, shallow strikes across loC were modest in achievements given the riders of no own casualties and be  non-escalatory. That was the reason lt Gen Ranbir Singh, soon after troops had returned to their bases, informed his counterpart that the operations were not against the Pakistan Army but terrorist launch pads.

 A hands-off-surgical-strikes during the election campaigns will have the added benefit of not drawing the Pakistan Army and the Deep State into the ring, given that the first announcement of the Pakistan Army chief was that he would try to keep the loC quiet. That promise has been kept after full five months of unabated cross-loC violence last year. By ring-fencing Pakistan and the surgical strikes, there is every likelihood of the Composite Bilateral Dialogue resuming after the elections, a full four and a half years after the conversations were suspended following the beheading of Naik Hem Raj in January 2013.

In recent weeks, much was written about the likely politicisation of the army by supersession of two lieutenant Generals by appointing Gen Rawat as the new COAS. It is therefore, unwise on the part of the political leadership to piggyback the Army for victory in elections when the risks of politicising military operations are high. The ECI should draw suitable red lines to keep the Army out of electoral battles, letting them keep their powder dry for the real war.

The Government should conduct deep surgical strikes against Delhi’s Parliament, which seldom functions and where 30 per cent of the members have one or more cases of murder, rape, kidnapping and dacoity registered against them. The bottom line: Politicising military operations is as disingenuous as frivolously civilianising the solemn Beating Retreat ceremony.

(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and an expert on strategic affairs)

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