Let soldiers be above politics and religion
The majority of ex-servicemen and hordes of serving military officers believe that the earlier Bhartiya Janata Party-led A.B. Vajpayee government did more for national security that the Congress-headed Manmohan Singh dispensation. This is a myth and should not go unchallenged. The reality is that the Vajpayee government harmed national security by its actions, and its successor government has done the same by its inactions. The exception being that the BJP is slowly eroding the apolitical and secular credentials of the armed forces.
In retrospect, the 1998 series of nuclear tests by the Vajpayee government were a mistake. No pre-tests national stock-taking to ascertain the cost-benefit analysis was done for fear that the bureaucracy might discourage the political leadership. Two weeks before the tests, on Vajpayee’s request, Jaswant Singh smuggled himself into the US ambassador’s residence in New Delhi to meet the visiting US energy secretary Bill Richardson, who was close to US President Bill Clinton. The message for Washington was that if it wanted a confidential channel for bilateral relations, it was available. This was necessary as Vajpayee and his close confidants knew what was coming. It was overlooked that the US, as a global power, conducts talks with enough transparency, unlike secret bilateral channel between India and Pakistan.
Consequently, there was panic in New Delhi when the US leaked the Vajpayee letter to Clinton listing China a key reason for the tests to the media. India paid a price for its impetuousness. The next logical step of converting nuclear tests into nuclear weapons was stalled. India issued a nuclear no-first-use policy when it did not have nuclear weapons. India’s ballistic missile programme was put on hold. On US’ insistence, Jaswant Singh publicly rubbished India’s draft nuclear doctrine prepared by the National Security Advisory Board and released by the country’s National Security Advisor. Secretly, Singh told the US that India could sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; it was another matter that it got rejected by the US Senate itself. Under the Manmohan Singh government, the progress on India’s nuclear deterrence, to say the least, has been inadequate. Pakistan today leads India in the range and variety of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and command and control aspects.
Next, take the case of the 1999 Kargil War. India had no choice but to fight and evict intruders from its soil. Without appreciating ground realities, India’s defence minister, George Fernandes ordered the army to clear intrusions within 48 hours. The army leadership followed these orders mindlessly and unnecessarily lost too many young lives in the first week of the war. The hapless army chief, General V.P. Malik told an incredulous nation that ‘we will fight with whatever we have ‘, suggesting that the army was unprepared for an all-out war. Fortunately for India, this did not happen and the Vajpayee government declared ‘Vijay Diwas’ (Victory Day). A Kargil review committee was instituted which resulted in the Group of Ministers report that was made public in February 2001. The singular important recommendation of having a Chief of Defence Staff was not implemented under bureaucratic pressure. Measures for better surveillance and intelligence gathering were fitful because the full import of the Kargil war was never understood. The 1971 war was a conventional conflict, and the 1999 Kargil war was the first war jointly fought by the Mujahids and Pakistani soldiers masquerading as irregulars. The next logical assault was to have terrorists trained as army commandos. This happened during 26/11 attacks when the Manmohan Singh regime was found unprepared. New Delhi has issued a 100 day internal security plan to ensure 26/11 does not recur. This is preparing for the last war; internal and external security remains compartmentalised.
While both the BJP and the Congress governments should have done more for national security, the Congress, by default, is not harming the soldier as much as the BJP seems to be doing. Two issues are indeed worrisome. The first refers to the recent long hunger strike by ex-servicemen at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi protesting against recommendations of the 5th Pay Commission amongst other things. Nothing wrong with it in a democratic nation except that it does not go with the ethos of the services. With ex-servicemen protesting against (genuine) grievances, what if serving personnel follow suit. Instead of allowing for the ex-servicemen’s judgement of error, the BJP leadership decided to make the most of it. Its prime ministerial candidate, L.K. Advani visited the protesting ex-servicemen and promised them impossible goodies if their party came to power at the Centre. The package included demands on one-rank-one-pension, total Income Tax exception, separate pay commission and better rehabilitation schemes (indicating that the director general rehabilitation is a nincompoop). No one realises that if the impossible does come to pass, the defence services would no longer remain apolitical.
The other disturbing issue is about injecting religiosity into the defence services, especially the army where force levels are structured around manpower. Depending upon troops’ composition, army units have their places of worship. A mixed unit has a temple, church, mosque and a gurudwara all within a unit. On appointed days (Sundays and holidays), soldiers, irrespective of their personnel faith, visit all places of worship. This is called a religion parade. The BJP’s continued communal rhetoric appears to have affected scores of army officers, many of whom now carry religion on their sleeves. This cannot be good for a secular army. On balance, I am glad that Congress has come back to power.