An opinion piece in The Tribune referring to the subtext of the statements of two army commanders speaking at a seminar late last month at Punjab University, Chandigarh, calls for the army chief Bipin Rawat to listen to those statements and pull himself back from going down a political route and taking the army down the same route with him.

At the Chandigarh seminar, the head of the army’s western command said that the idea of a two-front war is not ‘smart’. The army chief had dwelt on the concept of ‘two and half front war’ with the Doklam crisis as context mid last year. The second general, its training command head, called for activation of a political track with Pakistan. He seemed to suggest that even though the Line of Control (LoC) has been activated for some three years now, there is nothing to show for the political utility of the military operations there.

Both generals have a point. While the western command head advocated a patch up with China so as to put Pakistan on the hook, the training command head wanted political engagement with Pakistan. Their strategic good sense apart, they are also likely sending a message to their boss, the army chief Rawat. In an editorial in The Tribune, a daily widely read by the retired fraternity in north India, the army chief has been called ‘loquacious’. He is well on his way to challenging one of his predecessors, VK Singh, now a union minister, in terms of a penchant for controversy.

His latest remarks in the context of elections in three north eastern states drew attention to the threat of illegal immigration. While it cannot be said that BJP’s good showing in the elections was a result of those remarks but the timing unfortunately rules in the possibility that they were designed to be helpful. The timing has a precedence. In the run up to the Karnataka elections, the Chief went down to Coorg and pitched for the Bharat Ratna for a son-of-the-soil, Field Marshal Cariappa. His comments were criticised  by the commentariat and assorted politicians.

Over his tenure, the army chief has through his public remarks been rather useful for the ruling dispensation. Not only is the army chief voluble, but his utterances are political. This explains the latitude he has been given to discourse on aspects that are much outside the army’s domain.

The right wing government wants a hostile neighbourhood, to reinforce its tough image on national security. Their internal ‘othering’ of Muslims is advanced by having an active front against Pakistan. Their unwillingness to engage on a political track with Kashmiris is self-evident from their latest interlocutor taking home a salary with nothing to show over the past six months. Rawat has brought about a return to the nineties with his Kashmir initiatives, such as his likening stone throwers to anti-nationals.

The western army commander cautioned: “…sometimes you can get pushed into the conflict due to public opinion. Therefore, sometimes it becomes the case of the tail wagging the dog.” The ruling party and its support base might not be entirely averse to this, to advance their political project of a cultural nationalist makeover of a secular, pluralist and democratic India.

The two army commanders were speaking at a seminar on Pakistan. Drawing analogy from Pakistan’s case, the training command head had this to say, “This (Pakistani praetorianism) is in stark contrast to India where the armed forces owe allegiance to the Constitution, and not to any party, person or religion (italics added).”

This follows the joint doctrine (p.2) of the armed forces that reiterated the national interest as being: ‘To preserve the democratic, secular and federal character of the Indian Republic.’ This is a corollary to the national values encapsulated in the documents as: ‘sovereignty, socialism secularism, democracy, republican character, justice, liberty, equality, fraternity, human dignity, unity and integrity of our Nation, respect for our diversity, peaceful co-existence, pluralism and tolerance and international peace defined by a just international order.’

The training command head said as much, likening Pakistan to a mirror on the wall, which India needs to look at so as not to “make the same mistakes, particularly in light of growing radicalisation and intolerance within our own society over mundane issues.”

An unseemly political proximity is visible between the army and the right wing. While traditionally only personages of national stature are allowed to speak at the military’s haloed training institutions, a captive military audience is now being treated to talks by cultural nationalists such as Zee News anchor, Sudhir  Chaudhary, at the staff college at Wellington and former major and current day Republic TV host Gaurav  Arya at the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun. Former Chief VK Singh donned his true colours by taking up the RSS uniform.

The extent to which the strategic path adopted by the army is sustainable in strategic terms has been questioned, not just by the General heading perhaps the most consequential command in case of conventional war, but also by a retired General who served as military adviser in the national security council system of  the previous administration.

Referring to the ongoing barrages on the LoC, General Prakash Menon opines that,‘The germane question for India is the feasibility of force application in imposing costs that will affect Pakistan’s will and, therefore, restrain it from supporting terrorism.’ He ascribes this to a ‘visceral hatred between the two societies’. Promoting such hatred is part of a right wing political project. The LoC is where the internal and external part of this project intersect.
The benefits for the ruling party in a tough-on-national-security image are perhaps excusable; though taking electoral advantage of this, such as by having hoardings of Kargil and surgical strikes as backdrop for electioneering, has attracted criticism.

The army chief in the context of nothing specific had at a conference this winter called for keeping the army out of politics. It is unlikely the advice was for himself. Army’s discipline and sense of obedience cannot be an excuse to ignore the change in its public profile brought about by a Chief, deliberately given rather a loose rope by a self-interested government.

The two army commanders need to pay heed to the subtext of their own remarks and, at the closed door conference of army commanders, discuss the new phenomenon of the army flirting with politics. Hopefully a Chief suitably cautioned by his peers would then steer a strictly neutral course, particularly as national elections are on the horizon.