December 12, 2019
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Dangerous Pedestal

There is a general consensus that the army is not only special, but that it is important that it continue to be seen as special by the public at large

Dangerous Pedestal
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If I had a plot of land for every instance – on the news, over the last few days – that someone has said the military is India’s best/most honest/least corrupt institution, and that the ongoing Adarsh Housing Society scam is shocking given that the army (the army!) is involved; I’d be one of the country’s largest landowners.  Whether we think corruption in the army is an aberration or an awful portent of where India is headed, it seems there is a general consensus that the army is not only special, but that it is important that it continue to be seen as special by the public at large.  Anything short of that, and we risk damaging that most precious of things: The One Institution India Continues To Respect.

To which my response is: so what?

Let me explain: obviously, rampant corruption of the sort that blights Indian public life is serious, not only because of the loot involved but because of the toll it takes on the credibility of Indian institutions in the eyes of the public.  But there’s no reason why we should be especially shocked if the army is involved.  If anything, the reverse is true: in a democracy, it is the credibility of the system’s democratic institutions that is paramount.  We should be appalled by the specter of the country’s elected representatives feeding at the trough – rather than accepting that as par for the course, and reserving our surprise for when other institutions (such as the military, the judiciary, or the bureaucracy) are found wanting.  Our reaction implicitly testifies to a problem that has bedeviled India since independence, and that represents a hold-over from the days of the Raj: a deep suspicion of democracy.  Sometimes this suspicion expresses itself as a preference for technocrats and experts (planning commissions in Nehru’s day; election commissions and special advisors from private industry in ours); sometimes as a blind celebration of the judiciary (and an amnesia that it is not the rule of law that girds democracy, but democracy that lends legitimacy to the rule of law); and sometimes as an exaltation of the military.  Accordingly, the “we” of the bourgeoisie is only scandalized when one of these sorts of institutions is found wanting, because it is these sorts of institutions that the bourgeoisie not only trusts, but entrusts India to; the more insulated an institution from one’s fellow citizens, the greater the importance we attach to its integrity. 

Not to put too fine a point to it, but a cult of the military damages democracies, neatly summing up many of the bourgeoisie’s anxieties about democracy: impatience with its slowness, its sheer messiness; concern that our individual rights are at the mercy of fellow citizens we do not trust; and disgust at the spectacle of opportunism that we feel sullies politics.  Each of these concerns can be lulled by the spectacle of military discipline, at once seemingly decisive and ordered, and flattering to our self-image (as professionals, or as simply good at our work) by its sheer competence.  Taken too far, the flirtation becomes a fetish, a lesson India does not need to venture too far afield to learn: in its own geo-political neighborhood, the histories of Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar have been blighted by the conviction of various armies – but, crucially, not only their conviction – that the military is the guarantor of the nation-state, of national identity even.  To take one example, in the case of Pakistan the military is only partially to blame for this state of affairs: its way was paved by those in the country’s intelligentsia and urban middle classes who long for the order and efficiency only the boot can provide, who by far too readily into the myth that the military is what holds everything together, that the military is what citizens must thank day and night for keeping the borders secure.  (I use the present tense deliberately: a mere two years after the country’s last bout with military rule ended, I have heard far too many complaints from urban Pakistanis that begin with an indictment of the current government, and end in a desire for the return of military rule.)  In India itself, the fondness with which more than one Delhiwaala I’ve met remembers Sanjay Gandhi should give us pause.  He made the trains run on time during the Emergency (which, incidentally, was lifted not so much because of the country’s abiding faith in democracy but because of the government’s mistaken belief that it would win the ensuing elections; who knows how much longer the Emergency might have continued had the government accurately gauged the national mood?); but, mercifully, very many of the voters who delivered a drubbing to his party in the 1977 elections knew that there are more important things to worry about.

The problem is hardly unique to the sub-continent, and even more longstanding democratic traditions risk being compromised by military cults.  In the United States, for instance, the quality of public discourse has been gravely compromised by socio-political conventions that mean any critic of the military has to answer charges that (s)he has let the troops down, or is stabbing them in the back in the midst of war.  The result is that one can attack politicians on military policy (and risk being tarred as anti-military), or perhaps defer criticism until the war in question is over (at which point it is too late to do anything, not to mention that the critic will be told to move on and not dwell on the past).  The wider narrative goes unchallenged: crimes by individuals in the military will be punished (and the US has a much stronger record on this front than most), but only on condition that they are deemed no more than crimes by individuals.  Systemic issues – for instance, about the culture of an institution that allows certain abuses to routinely occur; about the competence of an institution that routinely kills civilians in accidents – are all but impossible to get on the radar.  The problem is not only never fixed, but is even exacerbated by the fact that so many in the public invest the military with the very credibility that they deny the political branches of government.  In short, while no one is barred from raising these issues, the question implicitly becomes, why would you want to?  What sort of person would want to undermine the credibility of one of the last remaining institutions that works?  Politicians learn the lesson too: not only can you never be seen to question the military, but it is best to re-cast a number of complicated foreign (and in the case of India, even internal) political issues as essentially military/security questions, and hence removed from the realm of ordinary politics.  In India, in many ways the cult of the military is nowhere near as developed as in the US, but the American example holds lessons for citizens of many countries, beginning with the need to realize that democracies aren’t only compromised by coups.  The most significant systemic issue might well be the way in which the military is used to impress the public into service, to secure political legitimacy.

All of which means that the Adarsh scandal – and let’s not forget, it is by no means the only one, given the Sukna land scam as well as the alleged involvement of some military personnel in Abhinav Bharat’s terrorist activities; not to mention frequent allegations of human rights abuses, the scandal as to which is that there is no scandal – represents an opportunity for more than just hand-wringing.  It represents an opportunity to re-orient our expectations from various institutions, to bring them in line with our professed commitment to wide political participation.  In democracies, pedestals are dangerous.

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