Nearly two centuries ago, the famed military strategist Carl von Clausewitz wrote, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.” The aphorism continues to guide strategic thinking the world over. Political will, above all else, contributes to the decision of going to war. And it is axiomatic that responsibility for the outcome rests primarily with the political leadership. What is the fuss, then, about politicising war for election gains?
The killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011 was hailed in India and across the world. Then US president Barack Obama took credit for the operation and won his re-election campaign in 2012. Similarly, George W. Bush campaigned for re-election in 2004 on the record of having deposed Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 2003.
Victory in war, however, does not automatically guarantee a win in an election. In July 1945, when Nazi Germany was defeated and Japan was nearing collapse, Winston Churchill’s Conservative Party lost the general elections despite the allied victory, yielding a landslide win to the Labour party.
In India, war has not been a major influencing factor for elections in the past. The 1947-48 war with Pakistan commenced immediately after independence and had little impact on the first general elections, as the political landscape was hardly competitive. The war against China commenced in October 1962, eight months after the general elections in February. And the 1965 war with Pakistan happened two years before the 1967 general elections. Even though the government’s popularity increased after India prevailed in the 1965 war with Pakistan, but two wars in quick succession—1962 and 1965—had stressed the economy. The government’s economic performance and rift within the Congress led to the party failing to secure two-thirds majority. Similarly, despite the dramatic win against Pakistan in the 1971 war under the leadership of Indira Gandhi, other events overtook the next general elections in 1977 and a non-Congress government came to power for the first time.
Even in the context of limited war such as Kargil (1999) and terrorist attacks like 26/11 in Mumbai (2008), the impact on elections does not seem to be particularly significant. The Kargil war took place under a caretaker BJP-led government. The run-up to the war witnessed some vicious political one-upmanship, before the parties chose to get their act together. The eventual success was not among the critical factors that determined the outcome of the 1999 general elections, held within a few months of the war. And, even though the then UPA government decided to not respond militarily to Pakistan after 26/11, the Congress-led alliance came back to power in the polls held five months later in 2009.
Even though war has not been a key determinant of victory in elections earlier, other matters of national security like defence procurements have in the past had a decisive effect—the charge of kickbacks in the Bofors gun procurement led to the defeat of the Congress in 1989. Attempts by the Opposition to make the Rafale fighter aircraft procurement the game-changer for 2019 continues, though no scam has been established so far.
The situation is changing fast for the 2019 parliamentary elections, and indications so far are that national security would be a central issue. The narrative has expanded from ‘economics of military procurement’ to the ‘theatre of military operations’. The Pulwama attack witnessed 130 crore Indians rallying together in what could be best described as a modern manifestation of the classic Clausewitzian connection, between the primary trinity of passion, chance and reason, with the secondary trinity of people, military and government.
Having demonstrated political will, decisive military action and effective diplomatic measures, two times in quick succession, after Uri and Pulwama, the BJP-led government considers it important to publicise its actions. Post-Uri, they reaped the benefit in the 2017 UP assembly elections and hope to do so again in the general elections. The political unity seen in Pulwama’s immediate aftermath perhaps could not survive the pressure of impending elections, with the Opposition accusing the government of “blatant politicisation of the sacrifices of the armed forces” and “creating an atmosphere for war”.
The political slugfest over the impact of the air strikes and the aerial combat with Pakistan continues. In the process, military operations are getting drawn into the political arena, endangering security and exposing the nation to adversaries. Even family members of slain soldiers are not being spared from the bitter political vortex. The media hype is also not helping. This must change.
National security and war stand distinct from other election issues because of their immense potential to unify people and project strong leadership. The challenge for the Opposition is to contest the incumbent without getting decried for being anti-national. There are two dangers—acrimony in political discourse, and the risk of stoking excessive enthusiasm for war. Elected leaders, whether from the ruling party or from the Opposition, may have an electoral incentive to rabble rouse, but they also have a responsibility to keep the nation secure.
In order to balance rights and responsibilities, three issues should be uppermost. First, more than the concern for politicising war, it is imperative that the armed forces are kept apolitical. The Election Commission has taken an immediate measure by reiterating its 2013 instructions, of not associating photographs of defence personnel and activities with election campaigns. This embargo must be applicable for any political event, irrespective of whether it is election time or not. Similarly, armed forces personnel should be directed against participating in any event organised or sponsored by political parties.
Second, reckless discourse on military capability and operational details needs to be curbed. This would, on the one hand, need regulations and, on the other, education for the legislators and the media. While heroes and wins are glamourised, there is an obvious distinction between a sports field and the battlefield. Raising awareness on national security, military operations and diplomatic affairs among the political leadership is of paramount importance and needs to be institutionalised.
Third, we need policy safeguards to keep the process of modernisation and capability development of the armed forces free from political controversy and procrastination. It is imperative to achieve a larger buy-in for strategic decisions and, at the same time, preclude the necessity for retrospective scrutiny. The Parliamentary Committee on Defence, which cuts across party lines, could be empowered to scrutinise major procurement decisions and be the voice in Parliament, to communicate the right message, keeping in mind security sensitivities.
National security and war lie within the spectrum of human interests and activities in which electoral politics operate. It would be naïve to expect decisions and outcomes to be kept out of the human quest for inquiry, glory, credit or discredit, particularly so during election time. However, just as there are international laws to govern armed conflict, there is also a need for regulations to safeguard national security during political campaigns.
(The writer is former deputy chief of army staff and Kashmir corps commander, and currently member, National Security Advisory Board. Views expressed are personal.)