OPINION: The isolated soldier

NEW DELHI (The Statesman/ANN) - The ‘Indian Soldier’ has remained as the ‘go-to’ option when all other arms of governance have failed.

Ironically the apolitical culture and ‘distance’ from the corridors of power, if responsible for its kinetic efficacy, also became its worst enemy for the want of a strong ‘voice’ in the political realm. Aside from the natural interaction between the politician and the bureaucrat, a large number of retired bureaucrats also entered active politics to ensure a powerful ‘voice’ amongst the lawmakers.

Indian politics has two categories of voter segmentation. First, the ‘tangible’ clusters, so-called, which are numerically significant and are in a position to effect an electoral difference. Second, the ‘emotive’ clusters which have a diffused presence and insignificant numbers can lend an overall ‘tenor’ to the political parties that are supporting them. The denominations of the ‘tangible’ clusters are in the form of regional (e.g. Dravidian), castiest (e.g. Jat, Gujjar etc.), religious (e.g. the church in Mizoram, saffron bodies etc.) sociological (e.g. SC/ST groupings) or even occupational clusters (e.g. farmers groups, trader community, labourers etc). These clusters have realised their political importance and grouped themselves into pressuregroups to exert their cluster-specific aspirations and are directly pandered to, by way of competitive- wooing, by regional or national parties. All parties have a commitment, position and ambassadors to ‘voice’ the concerns of these clusters.

The ‘emotive’ clusters include the much-posited-but-rarelypandered groups like scientists, sportsmen, and soldiers. The size of a cluster or community is usually important, yet some smaller clusters like the bureaucracy (serving and retired) have retained their domain significance, whereas those from the substantially larger cluster of ‘Soldering’ have experienced a steady decline, irrespective of condescending platitudes like Jai Jawan-Jai Kissan. The wiring of the governance system in a participative democracy like India necessitates the close proximity of the politicians with the civilian bureaucrats, which naturally lends itself to a certain ‘equation’ that can be tapped to safeguard and enhance the domain of the bureaucracy. This is contrary to the barrack-divisions and the avowedly apolitical culture of the Armed Forces that almost instinctively frowns upon any political intrusion into its ‘barracks’.

While this isolation from the societal and political morass has ensured that the ‘Indian Soldier’ retains the sharp glint in his bayonet, the distance from any meaningful political participation has rendered the troops virtually irrelevant in the national narrative. The Fauji-Politico dissonance dates back to the colonial era as the military was always seen as the preferred legatee of the British. Despite the repeated sacrifices by the Armed Forces starting with the 1947-48 Indo- Pak war, and later with 1962, 1965, 1971 and multiple other insurgencies (owing to the failure of the police and other government agencies, the ‘Indian Soldier’ has remained as the ‘go-to’ option when all other arms of governance failed. Ironically the apolitical culture and ‘distance’ from the power-corridors which was responsible for its kinetic efficacy, also became its worst enemy for the want of a strong ‘voice’ in the political realm. Aside from the professional interaction between the politician and the bureaucrat, a large number of retired bureaucrats have entered active politics to ensure a powerful ‘voice’ amongst the lawmakers. Inside and outside of the executive and the legislative chambers, the ‘bureaucrat’ remained relevant, whereas, the ‘soldier’ remained ‘voiceless’, even though increasingly requisitioned for sorting out any exigencies ranging from manmade to natural disasters.

Three fundamental changes exposed the slide for the ‘Indian Soldier’ ~ first the ‘opening’ of the Indian economy that saw the private sector boom and wean away the cream of youth from a career in the Armed Forces. Second was the communication boom that seeped through cantonments and brought the harsh reality of life outside the ‘barracks’ onto the mobile phone. Third, the wave of ‘uber-nationalism’ that selfishly appropriated the image of the ‘Indian Soldier’ for political gratification and short-changed the multiple promises made in the bargain to usurp his identity under partisan flags. The cumulative effect of these changes was the infusion of a certain political colour on to the extended arm of the ‘Indian Soldier’ i.e. the veterans’ community, which got politicised, polarised and divided amongst themselves, like never before. Instead of getting politically relevant in an effective sense, it got reduced to a political prop that was invoked to build political muscularity when required, and then relegated to the backdrop as had been the wont of all political parties, irrespective of their denomination since independence.

In order to save the institution from being further denuded, the veterans simply have to become politically relevant in their individual and collective capacities, and yet ensure that they do not taint the proudly apolitical institution, with any specific political colour. The institution and its concerns are beyond any single party and it is important that the institution has substantial ‘ambassadors’ across the political stream, who coalesce on matters pertaining to the institution, while still holding on to their own political position on other matters. The insensitivities in milking ‘Surgical Strikes’ or asking soldiers to collect litter from hill-stations, owes its genesis to a lack of an effective institutional ‘voice’, that could have communicated differently.

The slide in the official warrant of precedence is not about vanity as is often made out to be (e.g. OROP), but one that will affect the operational and emotional well-being of those who still battle on. The singular tragedy of war heroes sitting on the footpath for over 1000 days, is magnified by political insinuations that are ascribed onto those who remain steadfast in their protest. Clearly, the political classes succeeded in dividing the veterans amongst themselves on partisan lines, and worse, even amongst the sacred ‘officer-rank’ equation.

The Armed Forces need the likes of a TS Subramanian, whose passion, commitment and ‘voice’ for the bureaucracy ensured that it was heard long after he retired. Unlike the veterans, the bureaucrats seek to give no political colour to their institution and have instead joined the ranks of all political parties to protect their institutional turf. The ‘Soldier’ can still conduct his political duties in a manner that behoves a ‘Soldier’, as was done by a rare Jaswant Singh or Maj Gen Khanduri, and yet ‘voice’ the institutional concerns. Ironically, beyond all bluster on television screens by some veterans, their political misuse, appropriation and irrelevance is complete. The veterans need to join ranks of all parties, without believing that anyone has done anything substantial for the institution and that a lot more needs to be done. The political realm clearly needs more military ‘voice’, instead, it has been the institution itself, that has got a lot more ‘political’ clout, than is required.

(The writer IS Lt Gen PVSM, AVSM (Retd), Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands & Puducherry)

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