Generals, step back - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 29 April 2019

Generals, step back

Blurring the lines between soldiers and political activity is good neither for society nor for the military

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 30th April 19

There was a public furore in the United Kingdom in 2009, when aspiring prime minister David Cameron announced the elevation to the House of Lords of the former British chief of general staff, General Sir Richard Dannatt. Even Cameron’s own party men objected to violating a longstanding convention that senior military officers steer clear of party politics, even in retirement. A senior Tory leader pithily summed up the widespread unease, telling The Guardian: “This is unwise. Dannatt is a perfectly decent man. But he has absolutely no political experience. All he can bring to the table is his military experience. How are his successors in the military going to take to his position?”

In India, however, there was scarcely a whimper of disquiet on Saturday, when Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman ceremonially inducted seven senior military veterans into the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in a public function. One of them, Lieutenant General JBS Yadava, declared: “I agree that it is believed that defence forces will not go with any party. But, every person has a right to political thought… We can’t just stay on sidelines.”

Earlier this month, a former army vice chief, Lieutenant General Sarath Chand, was similarly inducted into the ruling party. While in service, he had testified before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on defence that the government had failed to allocate funds needed to replace the army’s antiquated equipment. Now, less than a year after retiring, here he was declaring: “No one has worked for the military as much as the BJP.”

True, there are no legal or legislative hurdles to a military veteran playing a political role, nor do Indian generals adhere to the British tradition of eschewing electoral politics after retirement. Even so, many military veterans percieve a moral barrier between themselves and active politics. From the day they don the uniform, military personnel are taught to be proudly apolitical – a vital instrument of the state, not of one or another government, and certainly not of any political party. In officers messes, two subjects were taboo for discussion: ladies and politics. These time-tested traditions are the military’s institutional safeguards to keep it out of the political arena. A clear distance is considered to be essential between soldiers and political activity.

That conviction has driven some 500 well-respected senior veterans, including former service chiefs, to petition the President, expressing their disquiet over “the unusual and completely unacceptable practice of political leaders taking credit for military operations like cross-border strikes, and even going so far as to claim the Armed Forces to be “Modi ji ki Sena”. This is in addition to media pictures of election platforms and campaigns in which party workers are seen wearing military uniforms…” The petition asks the President “to ensure that the secular and apolitical character of our Armed Forces is preserved.”

This is not to suggest that national security and defence should be off-limits for discussion in an election campaign. Quite the contrary, since the defence of the realm is the first duty of any government. Every party should and must present a detailed defence manifesto and face interrogation about how they propose to build India’s military sinews while diverting as little money as possible from other pressing needs like education and healthcare. In reality, this vitally important debate over a responsibility that consumes some 16 per cent of government expenditure has been crowded out by chest thumping and braggadocio and vulgar threats to potential adversaries that apparently amuse a large section of the voters but do little to deter potential enemies. This is a role that ex-servicemen could usefully play a role in, such as Lieutenant General DS Hooda’s preparation of a National Security Strategy that has informed the Congress Party’s defence manifesto. Unlike the generals who joined the BJP in a blaze of publicity and now find themselves sidelined, Hooda has declined to join any party, content to share his experience and expertise for the national interest.

Within the military, everyone understands the ongoing political gamesmanship in beguiling voters with the rubric of “teaching Pakistan a lesson”. For a military that has, over the decades and under successive political dispensations, been degraded, starved of resources and devalued in relative precedence, there is heady gratification in suddenly occupying the limelight, being lauded by the political elite and deified by the cheering throng. But when the lights dim and the applause fades, soldiers, sailors and airmen can hardly miss the depressing realisation that they are no better off than before. The many promises of bigger budgets, faster modernisation, state-of-the-art weaponry and respect from the ministry or the civil officials who rule their lives turn out to be hot air. As would be vouchsafed by thousands of disabled veterans who are spending their retirement fighting in court for their elusive benefits, it is the government and the defence ministry that stands in their way.

Starry-eyed former generals dreaming of political careers would do well to recognise that political parties have actually fielded only a handful of veterans in elections over the last two decades. Walter C Ladwig III, an India specialist at King’s College, London has compared the percentage of veterans in the Lok Sabha with those in the UK parliament and in the US Congress over the years. In the 1970s, 70 per cent of American Congresspersons were veterans, mainly due to conscription during the Vietnam War. After the draft was ended, this dropped to 50 per cent in the 1990s. Today, long after the era of compulsary service, 19 per cent of US congresspersons are military veterans. In the UK, that figure currently hovers around eight per cent. In India, from the first to the 14th Parliaments, just two-to-four per cent of the elected members had a “professional background”, which includes policemen, military veterans and civilian professionals like doctors and engineers.

This is unlikely to change anytime soon. Election Commission data indicates that 16 veterans were given party tickets in the 1999 general election, a figure that dropped to 10 in 2004, seven in 2009, before rising again to 16 in 2014. The numbers could be marginally higher, since Ladwig has identified veterans through military ranks affixed with members’ names. Those who left out their ranks, such as General VK Singh, have not been counted.

For many veterans who have served an apolitical ideal of the state, the key question today remains: is the military being saffronised; and how much concern should that arouse? It must be remembered that militaries the world over are conservative organisations and, therefore, tend to align themselves with parties like the BJP that propagate conservative social and political values. What is of deep concern though, is the aggressive deification of the soldier evident today, amplified by a jingoistic media. With service chiefs and generals increasingly paraded to endorse government viewpoints, or provide “clean chits” against criticism, there should be worry about the use of the military – and of notions of the “national interest” or majoritarian religious sentiment – to effectively shut down the space for critique or doubt. This device, which is straight from the European fascist playbook, is good neither for society, nor polity, nor the military itself. It is time the generals stepped back.


  1. and in USA .. so many Presidents and Senior Members. WhsWha ur algorithm for comparison plz

  2. Ajai, how much of this is coloured by your own political position? I am in partial agreement, especially with the worry that the forces are being bought into the political discourse needlessly and the EC should be more 'Seshanesque' to bring this behaviour to heal. However, to bring in the needless example of Britain (an also ran power), totally out of context, makes little sense. We need our John McCains and Colin Powells and from the looks of it they are far more likely to emerge from the BJP stable rather than INC which seems to be moving further left by the day and even otherwise (ref. RaGa on Hindu terror in Wikileaks).

    It is a different matter that the BJP doesn't seem to make use of these riches of talent in providing executive guidance to accelerate defence reforms. This lack of conviction in reforms across all spheres is the major failing of this government, not some flaky intolerance nonsense, much less fascistic tendencies.

    I will end with 2 points:

    1) How is a clutch of generals joining any political party worse than MS Gill joining the Congress after retirement. Will all elections presided over by him as CEC be suspect in your eyes?

    2) The bigger worry is the lack of intellectual heavyweights in the general staff (retired or otherwise). Where are our McMasters and Mattises? We still seem to produce shoddy work that is an anti-thesis of what general staff means, much less integrated commands. If the conventional intellectual contribution still believes the next war will be on two fronts and the 3 armed forces will fight in a mostly independent fashion, we will have rivers of young blood on our hands.

  3. Ajai Shuklas articles illustrate how our Generals have tolerated civil interference and have an unhealthy subordination to politicians of whatever party in power.
    But what are the implications when an officer joins a political organisation like the RSS secretly at the beginning of his career and then declares his allegiance on retirement.
    In the IPS there have been Directors General of state police who have disclosed membership of the RSS on the day of retirement.
    When politicians exercise their power to promote Defence chiefs out of turn, what’s to stop an officer believing that secretly joining a political organisation helps in furthering his own promotion?
    We read the RSS leader Nirmala Sitharaman in the capacity of Defence Minister, de facto Boss of the armed forces inducting seven senior military veterans into the BJP at a public function, how many of these officers were RSS men already while on active duty?
    Shukla is right when a former Army chief and other retired senior retired generals join the BJP, the moral barrier between officers and active politics will decline.
    Unlike Britain and America, the Indian Army is docile and subservient to politicians via our civil service and the army has insignificant influence over government policy - our army unlike most countries, is not outspoken enough to be a strong lobby group in favour of its own interests.
    The primary interest of all professional defence forces must be preparedness to face external enemies, the Indian Army interest has been repeatedly ignored by politicians as pointed out in the past by the author of the above article.
    Not so with Pakistan - the Pakistan army remains a professional and well disciplined army and like the Indian army inherited its traditions from the British, but when national security was threatened by civil policy, the army conducted a coup although this caused it to get corrupt later.
    In Britain if a future socialist prime minister like Corbyn is elected - and proposes doing away with Trident or gets Britain out of NATO, their army will have none of that, they will organise a powerful lobby and protest, including speaking out in public.
    Our own Senior Generals need to speak up, timidity is not the tradition they have inherited- they must protect the interests of the Army while in service not in retirement.
    Joining a political party at retirement does not help, it only helps those politicians responsible for the Army being “degraded, starved of resources and devalued in relative precedence” I have not seen General VK Singh actively lobbing from the RSS for Army modernisation
    In this context it’s encouraging news that Gen Hooda has not joined any political party but has produced a defence strategy document.
    It will be interesting to see what our present chief’s (who was promoted out of turn) political affiliations are.
    This current army chief has been ineffective towards modernisation and structural reform of our antiquated army - he has not strongly protested budget cuts or inefficiency/corruption in procurement and other injustices by politicians.
    Many are waiting to discover the current Chiefs political affiliations when he retires.

  4. Britain has to be brought in poster Kannan, because the Indian army is patterned after the British army, however the Indian army has undergone this peculiar indianisation since partition. I have heard of Generals with three stars on their golf umbrellas, there is a picture of a General climbing onto an army mule to inspect a mountain battery with three stars branded on to the bottom of the mule.
    One former army chief had a entire battalion of guarding the Delhi golf club whenever he played golf.
    Another chief had a large escort in peacetime, this the armed cavalcade disrupted Delhi traffic and he was advised by government to stop.
    I may remind our chiefs that Field Marshal Von Rundstedt during wartime and inspecting units close to the Russian front, had only his pistol and the driver of his car with a machine gun under his seat for protection similar to the other German generals. A former Indian Army officer General Montgomery had only his Jeep with a armed driver as escort for protection during during the invasion of mainland Europe.
    The senior British officers were referred to as Burra Saibs, but our Indian generals have made themselves into the new Mahrajahs within their commands.
    Where I agree with you poster Kannan above - the worry is the lack of intellectual heavyweights like General Sunderji there must be something bloody wrong with the selection process to produce such mediocrity.

  5. Surely you mean the John McCains and Colin Powells are more likely to emerge from the BJP cowshed rather than their stables, all my bets were off when I heard the BJP candidate and intellectual Pragya Thakur speak on cow medicine, how can anything useful to the army emerge by association with this mob.

  6. Kannan, my thoughts exactly. Shouldn't Col Shukla step back from some of the politically charged articles he has written in the past - esp. on Rafale non-scam?


  7. Ask yourself. You are not Holy than others. Your support for the Congress well party is known.

  8. Very well said Kanan. The fact that its ok foe ex CEC to join congress but soldiers not to join Bjp speaks volumes of the authors own bias. Sad that these propagandists claim to be journalists

    1. Not only ex CEC, the ex Chief Justice of the Supreme Court - Ranganath Mishra was a Congress MP after retirement. That's how ridiculous it is with INC. this Congressi Ajay targets only BJP

  9. General K. V. Krishna Rao governor of North Eastern States in 1984
    General Sunith Francis Rodrigues governor of Punjab from 2004 to 2010
    General Shankar Roychowdhury member of Rajya Sabha
    General JJ Singh who became the governor of Arunachal Pradesh in 2008
    Captain Arminder Singh the current CM of Punjab
    Hooda who has done everything to align with Congress other than to join them.

    Please don't leave the above names out due to the political spectacles you are wearing and supporting. If you say they shouldn't be in politics post retirement, then they also shouldn't hold positions like a Governor because that tells me they were aligned to the powers of the time hence rewarded. Interpretation is a funny thing, 2 and 2 can be 4 or 22.

    1. This is General Shankar Roychowdhury. Please note that I was sent to the Rajya Sabha as a "consensus candidate" from my home state of West Bengal by the then State government (Chief Minister Mr Buddhadev Bhattacharya CPI (M) and Leader of the Opposition Mr Siddhartha Shankar Ray). I do believe that's how the Rajya Sabha system was intended to work.

  10. Sir Richard Dannatt went into the House of Lords but he will be remembered by how passionately he defended the welfare, training and proper equipping of soldiers while he was in the Army.
    Our constitution should have been crafted that every service chief have a tenure at the Rajya Sabha. Some would go even further and reserve ten seats in the Rajya Sabha for the armed forces.
    But we would certainly do not need any McMasters and Mattises too emerge from this pool these are the worst examples to choose. So I would say no thanks , to mad dog Mattis.
    But perhaps a Sam Manekshaw, or a HS Panag or a Hooda would fit the bill.

  11. The Army veterans who have joined the BJP are Lt Gen JBS Yadav, Lt Gen R N Singh, Lt Gen SK Patyal, Lt Gen Sunit Kumar, Lt Gen Nitin Kohli, Colonel RK Tripathi and Wing commander Navneet Magon.
    The Defence Minister Said “They are brave and have an academic background as well."
    Lt Gen SK Patyal the senior of the seven entrants expressed gratitude "To us, the nation matters much above our personal family. Our Prime Minister and his ministers have taken great measures to improve our our Defence, For example, two defence corridors have been established, there is a focus on the manufacture of arms, ammunition and equipment. A major push was given to DRDO, to ordinance factory board and to the private industry."
    Lt General Sunit Kumar said “ Under the leadership of Modi the vision looking forward for the Army has been extraordinary, there has been much progress in every sphere, under Modi the Army is capable of taking on any enemy”.
    Lt Gen JBS Yadav, said, "I would like to thank BJP and its national president Amit Shah who have honoured us by making us members of the party. We retired officers must give to the country what we gave to the Army" He thanked Amit Shah for this honour he had bestowed on the veterans and said that under Modi, India’s defence was in safe hand, and the Army was more that capable of fighting a war on several fronts.

  12. During the great debate in the aftermath of Pay Commision which you cooly avoided as the entire Service community was being humiliated, one of the arrogant high headed IAS asked, "where will it stop?". Well Colonet it has come here and it is not difficult to predict where it will stop.

    The Service community has been painfully forced into it by your ilk.

  13. @ General Shankar Roychowdhury

    A bi-partisan, or multi-partisan consensus aimed at bringing military expertise into the legislative process would be a welcome development. It does not involve aligning with one or another party while in service, or even after retiring.

    That would be perfectly in line with the dignity of a service chief, and not infringe upon the apolitical nature of his position.

    I wish political parties would reach consensus on this.



  14. @General Shankar Roychowdhury

    Sir, the entire argument of Ajay is should Military personnel not to get engaged in Politics after retirement. My arguement is from that point of view that then they should not be part of Rajya Sabha, Lok Sabha, hold any positions Like CM, Governor, etc. I was basically showing him a mirror that this has been happening since a long time and is not a new phenomenon and not related to particular new party in power.

    Personally, I think ex-Defence personnel from Generals to any other posts can add significant value to various organisations at different level. But, please be aware, that people and media will play politics in your name.

  15. They should join political parties & actively participate in nation building.
    You should instead write article on officers who have become Dalals and gaddahars like adm Ramadas.(can he be stripped off his rank & pension? )

  16. And what good have Mattis and Powell done to US Military Establishment. Hon'ble RM is not entitled to hand out certificate on bravado and good service. Look around and realise that those who could not raise voice while in harness can't do in LS either. The urge to serve is not born suddenly after retirement to make people join politics. If there is a will to serve then services are the best avenue. To say someone joined politics is to willingly befool self. We all know why someone joins politics. Neither BJP nor Congress has ever done any good for services. If there is no voice while in uniform then services are doomed


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