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Mainstream, VOL LV No 8 New Delhi February 11, 2017

Should Retired Military Officers join Politics?

Sunday 12 February 2017

by Bhartendu Kumar Singh

The recent decision of a retired Army General (General J.J. Singh, the former Chief of Army Staff, and Governor, Arunachal Pradesh) to contest the upcoming Assembly elections in Punjab has come in for criticism from his own Veteran fraternity. The criticism had less to do with the actual entry into the political arena but more to do with the General’s decision to contest the Assembly elections and ‘demean’ his status! While this could be a subject of a separate debate, the larger issue of retired military officers entering politics does need scrutiny along with its pros and cons.

India’s military Generals have traditionally shied away from electoral politics after their retirement unlike their counterparts in many Afro-Asian countries and even developed countries like the US. With the sole exception of one four-star General and one three-star General, others have not been in elected governing positions. A handful of successful politicians had only marginal experience of short service in the Army and Air Force. While some veterans managed gubernatorial assignments like governorships and ambassadorships, many of the best simply faded away from public life after retirement despite having led glorious careers in the services.

The inherent shyness is on account of several reasons. First, military training imbues a sense of discipline and respect for certain values that are sorely missing in electoral politics. The Indian political drama is illiberal, irrational, and often corrupt. Little wonder, there is very limited space for professionals like engineers, doctors, civil servants and, least of all, the professional soldier. The combined rubric of men, muscle and money power has led to progressive crilminilisation of politics and also diluted the space for a level-playing platform where the gentleman officer does not find certain OLQs (officer like qualities) amongst his rivals. Second, the competitive politics in India is still fuelled by caste-based dynamics. The poor officer who has been trained to treat everyone alike and not behave as a faction leader is a complete stranger and novice in the muddy game. In addition, he gets very little chance to familiarise himself with constituency-based issues since he has always been living a life in suitcase while in service. Even when service officers get posted in a particular station, they remain insulated from civil life and civil issues since there are few institutional opportunities for interactions with the civil bureaucracy and leadership. Third, the military veterans are also very protocol conscious. In fact, if the General in controversy would have fought elections for some parliamentary seat, there would not have been any polemics since an MLA figures very low vis-a-vis an Army General in the Warrant of Precedence! Electoral politics, on the other hand, is bereft of any protocol where only power or potential power matters. No wonder, while the IAS or IPS officers adjust to the rules of electoral games, the military Generals do not!

Non-participation by military veterans has become a double-edged sword that is cutting both ways. On the one hand, it deprives the military class to empathise with a broader concept of security where they are not able to comprehend and conceptualise security beyond military terms. Poverty, illiteracy, health and education remain marginal concepts to them despite sensitisation at the National Defence College (NDC) where the entire top brass of the armed forces attend a year-long course on national security. Little wonder, they also fail to understand why the government cannot allocate a desired proportion of the defence budget, the desirability for a healthy correlation between defence and development in the national security calculus and remain immune to the thematic propositions like ‘manpower reductions’ and ‘affordable defence’. The military class also lose an opportunity to reach out to the civilian population at large and play a constructive role in decision-making at different levels. Above all, a good opportunity for bridging the civil-military disequilibrium is being lost.

On the other hand, the society in general and electoral politics in particular is also at a loss by perpetually being deprived of the services of military veterans whose commitment to the nation is beyond doubt. Major General Khanduri (Retd.) did quite well as a Union Minister and subsequently as the Uttarakhand Chief Minister. Ditto for Jaswant Singh and late Rajesh Pilot. However, the representation of the military class in the present Lok Sabha is still minuscule, despite ‘two’ retired military officers being Ministers for the first time.

If issues like OROP were not resolved in the past, it was partly because of the under-representation of the military veterans in electoral politics. If the society at large is not sensitive to the issues pertaining to men and officers in uniform, it is primarily because there are still few to speak for them with facts and figures.

Unlike other segments of society, the military class evokes a higher sense of respect amongst the citizenry. Therefore, political participation of armed forces Veterans on a larger scale would induce a sense of civility and gentleness in the political discourse and would provide a platform for raising the legitimate aspirations of officers and men in uniform. It would only strengthen the democratic foundations of governance that would be more representative and responsive.

The author is in the Indian Defence Accounts Service. The views articulated here are personal.

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