Instances of generals of the Indian army stepping into politics have been so few and far between that other than General VK Singh, a senior minister in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, it takes a while to recall the others. But the controversial trajectory of General Singh’s career – he made his political debut in 2014 as member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – his stunning electoral win and subsequent conduct as a politician has not generated as much interest in the civilian population as it has in the military fraternity. The latter has avidly followed and debated General Singh’s every move.
Many serving as well as retired Army men seem to feel he has presented a model for others of his ilk to emulate. What was initially a sense of disdain at the head of the army choosing to become a politician has given way to a gradual understanding of electoral politics and an awareness of ‘faujis as a vote bank’. Consequently, the conduct and utterances of senior serving generals are closely watched for tell tale signs of the person veering towards a political career, post retirement. This is why, when the present Chief of Army Staff (CoAS) General Bipin Rawat – who was selected for the top job by the Narendra Modi government by superseding two senior generals – created a stir with his recent political comments on the rise of the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) in Assam, not just the political class but military circles too sat up and took notice.
Speaking at a seminar on ‘North East Region of India – Bridging Gaps and Securing Borders’ on February 21, General Rawat said: “I don’t think you can change the population dynamics of the area [the North East, particularly Assam]. If it was five districts to eight to nine...the inversion [the demographic change through Muslim migrants entering the State from Bangladesh] has taken place, whichever be the government….There is a party called AIUDF [All India United Democratic Front]. If you look at...they have grown in a faster time frame than the BJP has grown over the years. When we talk of Jan Sangh, with two Members of Parliament and where they have reached, the AIUDF is moving at a faster pace in the state of Assam. Finally, what will be the state of Assam, we have to take a call.”
Essentially, the General pointed out that the AIUDF is growing faster than the BJP and the Jan Sangh on the strength of Muslim migrants coming in from Bangladesh. Asaduddin Owaisi, Lok Sabha member and chief of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), was the first to criticise the Army chief. “What, the Army Chief should not interfere in political matters it is not his work to comment on the rise of a political party, Democracy & Constitution allows it and Army will always work under an Elected Civilian leadership (sic),” he said on his Twitter handle.
Late last year the historian Ramachandra Guha writing in the Indian Express expressed dismay at General Rawat’s pronouncement in Kodagu that perhaps it is time to recommend the late Field Marshal KM Cariappa for the award of a Bharat Ratna. “An army chief has no business publicly recommending one of his predecessors for the Bharat Ratna. He should not be doing it at any time, let alone a few months before a crucial state election in Karnataka,” he wrote.
Are we then seeing another Army chief positioning himself for a political career or cosying up to the ruling dispensation for a post retirement sinecure? Or is he just asserting the military’s position and speaking his mind on matters that impact the men he commands?
While military circles have generally applauded General Rawat for speaking up for the Army and outlining the problems it is facing due to political ineptitude, many also feel that he is becoming increasingly aligned to the BJP.
Speaking to SouthWord., Maj Gen Pushpendra Singh (retd.) who also worked briefly with the Digvijaya Singh government in Madhya Pradesh said, “ The present Chief definitely has an inclination towards the BJP, and it is also true that Gen VK Singh (retd.) has made it possible for other Army officers to aspire for political careers once they hang up their boots. That said, I am quite pleased at Gen. Rawat’s recent articulation of contentious issues in Assam because these are required to be spoken about. His views reflect the actual situation in insurgency affected areas like the North East and Kashmir. When the head of the Army speaks frankly it enthuses the ranks and gives them confidence to fearlessly execute their tasks in conflict areas.”
There are others who look at the unusual political statements of the CoAS in public as the spread of a malaise for post retirement assignments, which has afflicted the bureaucracy and the judiciary too in some measure. “An Army general commenting on strategic issues is fine, but when he comments on political matters it does not help the Army in any way. He has certainly gone beyond the line in this matter. This is why I think there is a strong case for having an objective criteria and a time lapse of a couple of years for senior government officers whether civilian or military, for them to be considered for post retirement assignments,” Praveen Swami, journalist and commentator on strategic affairs told SouthWord..
It is not unusual for generals in developed democracies to contest elections and go on to have flourishing political careers, General Dwight D Eisenhower of the US being a good example. Swami pointed out: “It is their right and across the world we have several examples of military men stepping into politics. But I do not think it is correct for them to use taxpayer’s money (which pays Defence salaries) as a springboard for their next career.”
Not just the CoAS, but in the recent past another senior Army officer, Lt. Gen Devraj Anbu, General Officer Commanding of the Northern Command, crossed swords with the AIMIM’s Owaisi for “communalising martyrs” in Kashmir. Many are seeing these political statements by serving generals as the BJP’s use of uniformed men for its politics. In that past, public statements by senior Army officers on political issues were met with a snub from Delhi. Not so now.
Commenting on General Rawat’s pronouncements about Muslim migration impacting the demography of Assam, Guha tweeted: “Since this is only the latest in a series of explicit political statements, does it mean, the PM, RM, HM approve of the Army chief talking like this. This is most disturbing.”
Whichever way one chooses to look at it, the spectacle of serving military men taking centre stage and commenting on political matters in States where the forces are combating counter insurgency is new. Whether it is in preparation for a step into the political arena or a helpful nudge in aid of the political establishment of the day, men in uniform are clearly not shying away.