Former army chief Gen V.K. Singh is leading a contingent of military officers who are contesting the 16th Lok Sabha elections. Gen Shankar Roy Chowdhury was the only other army chief to enter Parliament but via the Rajya Sabha. V.K. Singh is the most high-profile officer to ever fight an election—and self-acclaimedly one destined to clean the stables of the spectacularly mismanaged ministry of defence, were he to become the country’s next defence minister. In an unabashedly immodest interview to the Hindustan Times, he said he knew what was wrong in the MoD and could set right the deficiencies in the system. He’s got his eyes set on it. Across battleground Ghaziabad, V.K. Singh had deployed in battle formations, across a dozen regions, four-member command teams to help him win the elections. That Gen Singh’s legacy does no army proud is another matter; still one should worry about the signals this sends about the background of service officers aspiring to join the highest house in the country.
Tainted politicians and upright military officers are poles apart. Based on complaints, the Election Commission, according to news reports, had to warn V.K. Singh not to introduce himself as ‘army general’ or ‘army chief’. What can be more embarrassing and denigratory for a former chief?
V.K Singh’s legacy includes taking the government to court over the age row, a blatant anti-government media campaign, sensitive revelations with bearing on internal and external security and a slew of court cases. That such an individual might be considered for ministerial office violates the military code of conduct. Rewarding a retired army chief culpable in the eyes of soldiers with a ticket is tantamount to politicisation of the services. The political opposition has repeatedly been pointing out this anomaly. It is water off a duck’s back as far as V.K Singh is concerned. Sample his latest shenanigan: last week, V.K. Singh was recreating the controversy over naming the successor to Army chief Gen Bikram Singh when he retires this July 31. The present government is all set, and legitimately too, to announce Lt Gen Dalbir Singh Suhag, the seniormost of those in line, as Gen Bikram’s successor. The post is invariably announced 2-3 months in advance and so the new government will not have the required time for processing papers. V.K. Singh tried to put a spoke in the wheel by questioning the timing of taking the next chief’s announcement by the present government as well as Lt Gen Suhag’s credentials. As army chief, he had tried to scuttle the prospect of both generals Bikram and Dalbir taking the coveted post so that his relative, Lt Gen Ashok Singh, could become army chief. By mischievously reviving the succession issue, he’s revealed the real V.K. Singh.
The highest military officer to win an election has been a three-star lieutenant general and the maximum number of officers at any time in both Houses has never exceeded one dozen. Only a sprinkling of officers is to be found in state legislatures. This year, four retired generals and a general’s daughter are joining battle for the Lok Sabha. Ex-servicemen providing organisational support to them is also at a record high. The majority of serving and retired personnel view the BJP as ‘more nationalist than the Congress’ and expect it to do more for the cause of defence and national security. The BJP has formed a ‘strategic action team’ which has in its ranks a lieutenant general-rank office-holder. For the first time, billboards appeared in NCR-Delhi claiming credit for the Congress in implementing the long-delayed one rank, one pension demand. This followed after the BJP had promised to enact the OROP award and ex-servicemen had taken the unprecedented step of countrywide protests and return of medals to the president. These highly politicised manoeuvres will alas likely blur the red line between the soldier and other members of society.
The politicisation of the military is not a new thing. It began with then defence minister V.K. Krishna Menon’s direct interference in the army’s internal affairs which led to COAS Gen K.S. Thimayya resigning, the motivated ‘inquiry’ against Maj Gen Sam Manekshaw and the creation of the ‘yes men’—all of which in turn contributed to the 1962 debacle in the high Himalayas, the resignation of Krishna Menon, Nehru’s death and the Henderson-Brooks inquiry report—inexplicably kept out of public view for so long. For the next three decades and more, thanks to the character of military leadership, the armed forces were kept reasonably immunised against the virus of politics till Kargil happened when a full-blown war erupted between the ruling BJP and the Congress which took to defending the sacked Kargil brigade commander, Brig Surinder Singh. The political mudslinging was not restricted to the organised defence of the dismissed brigadier but also the subsequent scrutiny of the emergency purchases of war-fighting equipment, including coffins for the Kargil dead that famously came to be called Coffingate when the Congress returned to power. Recently, the Vice-Chief of Air Staff, Air Marshal P.K. Borbora, publicly remarked that defence preparedness has taken a hit due to the fear of investigations with change of governments as they go for each other.
The next political bombshell was the summary dismissal of navy chief Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat which gave the Congress another opportunity to embarrass the government. Bhagwat was variously and effectively used to slam the BJP. More recently, the Congress was paid back in the same coin by the BJP selecting the discredited and disgruntled V.K Singh as its candidate for the 2014 elections for his anticipated critique of the government on its poor defence performance.
Earlier this year, defence minister A.K. Antony had to say what no government minister has ever had to say in response to troop movements ordered in 2011 by V.K. Singh: that the Indian armed forces will never plot a coup. These unsavoury developments over time mark the gradual but only barely imperceptible politicisation of the military, especially the army. It’s a far cry from when the bbc’s epic TV serial, 50 Years After the Raj, singled out the Indian army as the last bastion of democracy.
In liberal democracies, the rights of soldiers are assured and ensured through legislation and Acts of Parliament. For their expertise, retired military officers are appointed as advisors and not compelled to slug it out through the electoral route. Indeed, it is time to reinvigorate parliamentary oversight of defence and national security by reorganising defence consultative and defence standing committees. Further, the Indian military being kept off limits from appointments like the NSA and these made the preserve of the foreign office are retrograde steps which need to be corrected.
The armed forces, for long cocooned in cantonments, have only in this election been given the fundamental right to vote from where they are posted. Although only a few new generals will contest elections, an elaborate network of ex-servicemen has been deployed to support them. For the first time, two army officers are battling it out in Barmer: the erudite nine-time MP, Maj Jaswant Singh, versus three-time MP, Col Sonaram Chaudhary. Politics is extremely divisive and corrosive, it will fracture the army’s cohesion. Sentiments and perceptions that the ‘BJP is a more nationalist’ party and that legitimate rights of soldiers and ex-servicemen can best be secured from inside Parliament could further politicise the military. Gen V.K. Singh has fired the first salvo even before entering Parliament. Azam Khan communalising the victory in Kargil is the flavour of politics of the future. It will need God, politicians and society to keep the army apolitical.
The writer is a retired major-general and a well-known commentator on military affairs.