The image of the military as an apolitical entity has been getting compromised and drawn into vicious and divisive polarisation.
To believe that there is no deliberate diminishing, misuse or even usurpation of various governmental institutions is to live in denial. Admittedly, such manipulation was done by all earlier governments, but the extent now is simply unprecedented. Supposedly apolitical institutions risk bending and compromised partisanship, to the detriment of a healthy democracy.
One critical component of democracy is to ensure an apolitical and “distanced” military from the unrestrained passions of society and partisanship, thereby guaranteeing institutional steel, professionalism, and civilian control over the military. In survey after survey, the military has been seen to be the most respected institution by the citizenry, and this owes immeasurably to a vital “distance” from the un-uniformed citizenry. The Indian soldier is unlike civilians, and that healthy difference was carefully cultivated. Restraint and measure (in bearing, conduct and speech) borne out of keeping that necessary “distance” was ensured through a carefully guarded culture of “restricted” cantonments and curbs within on external social engagements, allowed/disallowed content, and ensuring the “ways of the service”. The air of inviolable discipline mandated no frivolity, social leniency, and certainly no partisan discourse: the soldiers were constitutionalists.
Life in uniform was as much about social disallowances (especially with the external world) as it was about protocol rules, full of do’s and don’ts. This institutional denialism was expected to be respected by the external world, and especially by the political class, who could axiomatically inject partisanship, in the virtually “quarantined” environment. The founders of India’s Constitution had wisely wired the role of supreme commander onto the apolitical President of India and explicitly denied the same onto the decidedly more political and partisan post of Prime Minister. Thus, military offices, messes and museums all bore the photos only of the President. While raising a “toast”, “commissioning”, “at the pleasure of” et al was solely in the name of the President, no one else.
Like between executive and the judiciary, the military and executive too warranted “distance” with the practical administrative facilitation by the defence ministry, which too respected the delinking of uniform from the civilian bureaucrats of the defence ministry. Not any more, as now the twain unusually converge.
From the seemingly innocuous task of laying mattresses for civilian events, building pontoon bridges for shadowy godmen, clearing waste from hill stations — everything was initially rationalised with an admixture of whataboutery or “why the fuss, didn’t they always do such things”? Leading the defence of such partisan “transgressions” (a term used for far more serious issues) were the unprecedented optics of some bristling veterans in their regimental regalia and tilted hats on prime-time TV as “newsroom warriors”. The politicos had already put a wedge in the apolitical institution, but many didn’t see it coming. Drama and bluster offered short-term “covering fire” to partisan platforms but the image of the military as an apolitical entity was getting compromised and drawn into vicious and divisive polarisation.
Soon the cantonment roads were literally ordered to be “opened up”, and even then, many justified the same as unnecessary segregation. They were happy to bask in the cool muscularity of “how’s the josh” dished out by an increasingly partisan Bollywood. Convenient invocations and manufactured outrage over “our brave soldiers” was done condescendingly and insincerely, even as unfulfilled promises of parity on OROP, etc., was kept away from reportage. Emboldened with lack of indignation or even a pushback, wholly civilian events like the G-20, which were milked for a lot more than they were worth, soon found themselves on facades and hoardings within the cantonments; and they also bore the image of the head of the executive (not the President), yet this too got normalised.
Then came the substantial change of the “new normal”, with the plan for “Agniveers” announced and implemented in record time. How such a conceptualisationcould improve the kinetic ability of the military was handled with mealy-mouthed platitudes of “nation building”. Military logic from nowhere in the world could justify this. The juggernaut continued with asking soldiers (supposedly “voluntarily”) to disseminate government schemes to citizenry, while on home leave!
As the armed forces internalised the “new normal”, emotions oscillated from regret and fear to even incredulity as the latest triviality arrived: 822 geo-tagged “selfie points” to “showcase good work done in defence” with a picture of the Prime Minister for the citizenry to partake in! Such comicality would have been hilarious, if only it weren’t true. The timing of this latest misstep on the heels of elections, the hard-sell of government schemes and the gentle suggestion of the PM’s photo don’t add up to naïve intent. It’s important to question if 822 “selfie spots” will help retain the “distance” of the institution or bring the protected realm closer to the risk of civil-societal passions.
By conflating civilian governance initiatives with undeniable partisan stamps affixed on them, the risk of partisanship is no longer inching itself into the military realm, but instead it is boldly manifesting as “selfie points” to announce and celebrate it. It is surreal how even the military is no longer spared the platforming of a “stage” — now with selfie-points to broadcast official “achievements”. It is walking the path of the half professional-half ideologue Communist Party of China’s PLA (People’s Liberation Army), where the soldier belongs to a party and not to the nation. A sad regression indeed, even though it’s still not too late to sit up and question what exactly is happening. The trivialities like “selfie points” are a continuation of the bizarre.