Sending wrong signals to the Army

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Sending wrong signals to the Army

Wednesday, 31 January 2018 | Ashok K Mehta

The absence of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Ministers from the Army Day function, coupled with other anomalies, has raised the hackles of our men and women in uniform

This month, on Army Day it is being said, serving officers and veterans were astonished to notice that the hallowed stone platform in the Army House, where the top political leaders sit, was conspicuous by empty chairs meant for the Prime Minister and his colleagues. President Ram Nath Kovind, the symbolic supreme commander of the Armed Forces, enjoyed the solitary splendour which is his on such occasions. Only Minister of State for Defence, Suresh Bhamre was present, who, according to reports, was heckled the previous day by some veterans, demanding ‘full One Rank One Pension (OROP)’. Veterans  should tender an unconditional apology.

No mainstream newspaper reported the unprecedented absence of the Vice President, Cabinet Ministers, including the Defence Minister who was in her office, and members of the Opposition. Some magazines carried diary items about Ministers ‘skipping’’ the reception, but noted that National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was present, so important is the man. Prime Minister Narendra Modi also did not attend the Navy and the Air Force receptions due to ‘scheduling problems’ and election engagements. The apparent boycott of the functions is seen by the services’ as a measure of respect and dignity (if not insult) with which the political class holds the faujis.

The military holds that the Navy has traditions; Army has customs; and the Air Force has habits. It is the Army that is the repository of regimental traditions, customs, elan and ethos that the other two services try hard to emulate. Political leadership missing on such occasions breaks this dastoor: Izzat and Iqbal of the Army.

For the uninitiated, the Army Day reception at the Army Chief’s residence  is the culmination of ‘one more year’ of service to the nation, defending the difficult unsettled borders, with many attaining martyrdom. In Jammu & Kashmir alone, since 1988, this figure is 6,980. Except this year, for the last 25 years, I have attended this grand reunion of veterans and the serving organised immaculately where Ambassadors and defence attaches of many countries are also present.

It is one hour of bonhomie — when the President moves around manicured lawns, meeting serving and retired personnel. The Prime Minister and his Cabinet colleagues also similarly exchange greetings and small talk. The event is both sombre and spirited with the year’s gallantry award winners, including the disabled and their families made much of. Journalists scout for stories as audio-visuals of the history of gallant actions are shown alongside the haunting echo of military bands (which, for us old timers, thank heavens do not include tabla and nagara as in Beating Retreat).

I have known of one cold afternoon when even regimental hip flasks were furtively flashed. A whole afternoon would pass only to be terminated by the National Anthem. The absence of the Prime Minister and Cabinet signalled a different message: Civil-military relations were a skew. Popular perception suggests that Prime Minister Modi does not care for the soldiers. When he was campaigning for his office, he promised at the veterans’ rallies, the military, the moon.

Granting even an imperfect OROP is Modi’s singular achievement, though diluted by the anomalies of the Seventh Pay Commission, which includes pushing the military below the police. In Prashant Jha’s recent book, How the BJP Wins: Inside India’s Greatest Election Machine, Modi’s central strategic thought comes out clearly. If only a portion of similar thinking was devoted to defence (and strategic security), the Armed Forces, especially the Army, would not be as underprovided as it is today.

Foremost prevails the second perception that for Modi, defence has become chalta hai. Recall the parking of part time Ministers in the Defence Ministry culminating recently in a full-time combative but junior woman Minister, who is still to provide the cost of the Rafale that she promised to journalists eight weeks ago. As for CDS and other reforms….forget them!

While India is not equipped in fighting a two-front war, despite brave assurances by Service Chiefs, it is Infantry, the only combat arm fighting one in Jammu & Kashmir 24X7 without state-of-the-art weaponry and protective gear.

Modi’s principal mentor and confidant on defence and security is said to be Doval, who arranged for Modi to spend a day with DGs police. According to a recent news report, the ‘policification’ of security is underway with IPS ruling the roost. Even the deputy NSA (who is from the foreign service) and other appointments, like interlocutors and cease fire monitors with insurgent groups, including Kashmir — almost all incumbents are now policemen. Some were from the Army. Dovalisation (a phrase coined by a diplomat) has influenced every aspect of security and defence, and has no parallel in recent times.

Modi and his team have extracted optimum political mileage from surgical strikes (and Doklam) which was showcased in his election speeches, which led to the politicisation of the Army. Use of the Army in unauthorised and unsoldierly works, like laying mats on Yoga Day, has undermined its image and ethos. Only last week, Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat had said that the military has been politicised and should be kept out of politics. On defence reforms and pace of modernisation, there is little to show as capital expenditure in defence budgets since Modi became Prime Minister has progressively declined.

In his first full budget speech, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley did not even mention defence, which was unprecedented. The fund allocation was to be found in the expenditure budget. In the 2017-18 Budget, Jaitley strangely spoke about computerising railway reservations and pension disbursement for the soldiers. Budget for modernisation was flat if not concave. In fact, Rs 13,000 crore and Rs 5,000 crore of modernisation was returned successively as it could not be utilised. Balance the fiscal Budget, stupid!

The Parliamentary Committee on Defence is headed by BJP stalwart Gen Khanduri, who has slammed the Government for neglect of defence. Year after year it is the same story: Ageing submarines, retiring aircraft, obsolescent guns, outdated rifles and no bulletproof jackets for the infantry. Recall Gen VK Singh’s prophetic letter to Prime Minister Singh in 2013 on critical hollowness in defence.

Modi skipping Army Chief’s reception, coupled with other anomalies, have led to doubts about his commitment to defence and civil-military relations. In view of the many serving personnel and veterans, his vision of ‘Sabka saath sabka vikas’ does not include defence. Compared to the energy and enthusiasm he invests in his election campaigns, his commitment to defence and security appears hollow. Tomorrow’s defence Budget will confirm the pessimism of Modi doubters — unless the dictum is changed to ‘reform, perform and transform’, the BJPs winning slogan.

(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the revamped Integrated Defence Staff)

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