In his latest book, A General Speaks, General 'Paddy' Padmanabhan has put down his views that on many issues he describes as being "quite different from those of the Government of India." The General's views in the matter of politicisation and the Indian military are of interest on account of their likely influence within the Army he once led. His book is a distillation of his experience, though his memoirs are still due. His candour is credible in light of his earlier work The Writing on the Wall: India Checkmates America 2017 in which his scenario of India prevailing over the U.S. runs in the face of current India-U.S. bonhomie.
In one of the book's key chapters, the General examines "the matter of political control of the services in greater depth, the aberrations that have crept in and what we must do to see that the armed forces are not politicized." The General is right in assessing that the Indian record is one calling for self-congratulations, particularly in light of the situation to the contrary elsewhere in our neighbourhood.
Manas Publications, New Delhi, 2005, 234p.
The General's view is that politicisation of the Army has as its starting point unauthorized approaches by politicians on behalf of kinfolk. This gives rise to the 'politically infected' officer and the onset of politicisation at the grassroots level. The 'senior league' corruption is when symbiotic ties develop between such upwardly mobile officers and their political mentors. Another class of 'politically sensitised' servicemen comprises those hailing from political backgrounds such as scions of erstwhile princely families. The General praises such officers for having "conducted themselves with dignity." These are also thinly veiled references to former defense ministers.
But the General betrays an unsophisticated understanding of politicisation. Politicisation is a much more complex phenomenon than a politician seeking undue favour for his constituents and a pliant uniformed kinsman serving up the same. Politicisation is a departure from the professional ethic of neutrality by flirting with a political plank and is known to have sorry outcomes. In its more pernicious form it is about the military subscribing to an ideology. We need look no further than Pakistan to see the consequences.
During the Zia years, there was an attempt at Islamisation of Pakistan so as to build up an Islamic identity for the state. This led up to an increased influence of the Jamaat I Islami and the Tablighi Jamaat within the officer corps. Strategic leverage of the Islamic card was also sought through Pakistan's training and arming of both the Taliban and Kashmiri militants. The outcome has been a dysfunctional democracy and growth of terrorism at home and abroad.
In India, politicisation of state agencies has also been attempted with like consequence. During the Emergency years, the depredations of a 'committed' bureaucracy were paid for at the polls of 1977. Politicisation of the police in Mumbai and Gujarat has been evident in the manner of their response to communal flare-ups. The growth of minority extremism can be partially attributed to these violent episodes.
The General's analysis is also missing a related predisposition of the military. Sociologically, armed services are known to be conservative entities. They favour political realism in which power is taken as an arbiter. Their corporate interest lies in higher defense spending. In the bureaucratic politics that characterizes the policy and budget formulation process, the armed services also require allies. Therefore it can be hazarded that armed forces are not politically innocent. They would instead incline towards the conservative end of the political spectrum.
That the military does not require 'detoxification' can be attributed to the resilience of liberalism in India that resulted in the timely change in government at Delhi in 2004 owing to issues as 'pani, bijli, sadak' (water, electricity, roads), and perhaps electoral revulsion over the Gujarat episode.
Still, sensitisation to the threat of politicisation, for it remains even today a threat-in-being, is required and towards this end a more rigorous understanding of the phenomenon is necessary. The recent outcry that led to the defense minister retracting the government's position on the muslim headcount in the Army indicates that the right wing of polity continues to hold sway in issues such as national security. Even liberal governments are compelled to be defensively hard-nosed, so as not to be accused of reneging on national security. In times of crisis, this tendency is further accentuated.
The General, in another passage informs us, that "armies are maintained to safeguard core values and national interests." He elaborates this line also in his latest writing 'Indian Army: 2020' in the Indian Defence Review of October-December 2005.
It is true that formation and articulation of values and interests, while being a political exercise, does witness the participation of institutions charged with national security. But participation may not be value-driven alone. For instance, the nuclear establishment lent its weight to India's nuclearisation arguing in terms of national security. That this was also in its corporate interest was not projected and it was merely taken as being incidental to its position. Likewise, the military is a participant in defining these values and interests, for its strategic projections are premised on such a definition.
There is therefore a case to be made for a more sophisticated review than the rather bland offering of the General. For too long has the fixation with coups and the relative political supremacy of the military vs. civil formed the subject matter of military sociology. For India, the conclusion has invariably been that civil supremacy is sacrosanct. (Apurba Kundu's excellent Militarism in India: The Army and Civil Society in Consensus is a typical example of such an assessment.)
The lesson is that the military is not quite a neutral agency engaged purely in an apolitical, professional and non-judgmental provision of security for its 'client', the state. Instead its position on what constitutes these values and interests has utility for political forces. A convergence could result in politicisation that in theory passes for 'subjective' political control of the military. It is this linkage that requires one to be alert against in India that is otherwise treated as a model developing state in so far as political control of the military goes. Further, it is this linkage that usually results in the tilting of the balance towards issues of national security and away from the social sector or a developmental agenda.
In sum, while agreeing with General Padmanabhan that "politicisation of the military is a self defeating exercise in a democracy," it is difficult to concede that "greed for fish and loaves of office" is how the politician would corrupt the military establishment and wrench it from its apolitical moorings. The threat is instead in a tacit, if not covert, ideological affinity that a conservative military may share, albeit unwittingly, with nationalist parties. It is this relationship that bears future watch particularly if the political right reemerges at the helm.