Tinkering with army


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Internal Security: Tinkering with the Armed Forces


Times of India, Thursday 11 February 1999

ONE question has not been considered in the public discussion on the
Bhagwat affair. That here is a party not remarkably successful at
democratic rule, which now seeks to pack the senior military commands
with its own men -- in the pursuit of a consensus outside the
parliamentary system, consistent with its authoritarian ideology.

The Admiral is after all a public servant; and as such would ordinarily
merit an hearing, even if not a public one. It is worth noting that a
hearing, with independent public testimony to the legislature and its
committees, is normally available in other liberal democracies.

Dynamic Leader

We know that such openness has only been for the good. When the American
General Douglas MacArthur defied civilian authority in April 1951 by
invading North Korea and enlarging the scope of the hostilities with
that country and its allies, China and the Soviet Union, he was sacked
by President Harry Truman. And rightly so. But the American people had a
chance to find out for themselves the justice of the President's action
because the General ventilated his point of view at length before a
public inquiry by Congress.

When Admiral John Fisher resigned over the conduct of the war in Turkey
in May 1915, the cabinet minister in charge of the Navy felt bound in
honour to resign; though it was generally accepted that he was by far
the most dynamic member of the war cabinet. He was Winston Churchill.

Moreover, the government's general conduct of national security only
inspires a lack of confidence. Who remembers Defence Minister George
Fernandes' discovery of Chinese bases in the Cocos Islands? Or his
discovery of a Chinese helicopter base in Arunachal Pradesh? Or his
statement that there had been a Chinese incursion into Indian territory
on the basis of private information provided to him, he claimed, by the
chief minister of Uttar Pradesh? All these are grave matters. Amazingly,
none has been substantiated.

This government has betrayed India's traditional stand on the
non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, and its protest against the
hegemonic control of the nuclear powers. As the result of India's
nuclear tests, a near-nuclear Pakistan has embarked on the development
of a weapons capability targeting India. And India has complained to the
United States that China is its principal adversary. Given this pattern
of behaviour, is there sufficient reason to trust it on any matter of
national security?

Moreover, if we are concerned with matters in the Naval chief's past, we
should also remember that there are many things about those who
constitute this government and have access to state secrets which should
cause concern. Powerful private firms now exercise extraordinary
influence in this government and have access to state secrets which
should cause concern. And the defence minister, when he presided over
the ministry of industries, initiated comprehensive agreements with
foreign firms which undermined the Indian public sector.

Public Services

Democracy cannot consist in undermining public services in the name of
elected authority. Democracy requires that the public services be
insulated from private agendas and illegal and unconstitutional acts.
Now, senior staff representations against Admiral Bhagwat could indeed
indicate his inability to manage men. This is a matter of concern in the
head of a service. But there is another possibility, far more alarming:
they could indicate the defence ministry's willingness to encourage such
representations, and stir up trouble against a man it did not want. Were
this true, it would indeed be infinitely reckless behaviour on the part
of the Vajpayee government. It seems to be very important for it to have
men of its choice -- not merely able public servants, but its own men in
key positions -- especially in the defence and security establishments.
For this the BJP is willing to take significant risks.

Like others, the BJP has come to power without a majority. No government
in recent years has had a natural majority: Indira Gandhi and Rajiv
Gandhi flirted with Hindu interests in Kashmir and at Ayodhya; and Mr V
P Singh tried to build a coalition of backward castes. So too, the BJP,
having grown on anti-Muslim propaganda, discovered its limitations. Now
its economic policies are no different from those of the Congress or the
United Front.

So the unique weapon in the hands of the government in office remains
the call of national security. Pokhran II failed to evoke any
countrywide enthusiasm. But it would seem to be part of a larger
project. Both the defence minister and Home Minister L K Advani have
focused on limiting external and internal threats as they perceive them
to national security; and focusing on a limited identifiable agenda. For
that reason, the government has supported Mr Chandrababu Naidu's
campaign against Naxalites in Andhra; attempted to do deals in the North
East and with neighbouring states; and focused on internal repression in

Authoritarian Party

The Bharatiya Janata Party has focused on dominating the consensus on
national security. For the last few years, it has assiduously wooed
senior army officers, a number of whom have joined it immediately after
retirement. This is unique among political parties. No other has treated
the armed forces as a votebank. Jawans and officers have been Tamils or
Garhwalis; never wooed as men who employ firearms and can exert
authority. The fear of the ``man on horseback'' has been too deeply
ingrained in other political parties. But the BJP is different; it is an
avowedly authoritarian party.

Now for such a consensus to be forged with the armed forces, it is
important to develop a rapport with a sufficient number of senior
serving officers. For this, it is also important for such a political
party in office to pick and choose among senior officers for promotion,
reward its own men and punish those not committed to its ideology. The
cry of ``the nation in danger'' and the consequent pursuit of
extraordinary authority to maintain internal and external security --
could be the BJP's last hope in office. We may be misled: the threat to
democracy may not be Admiral Bhagwat, but the BJP government itself, in
alliance with a section of the armed forces.

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Last updated: February 23, 2000 .