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The general and his stink bombs

The ongoing furore over former army chief General V.K. Singh has turned the spotlight on the dysfunctional relationship between our democracy and the military. The entire sequence of events starting from General Singh’s public appearance with Narendra Modi to the leaking of a report about his activities as army chief and his response to the allegations has dealt a deep blow to the institutions of national security. The ‘apolitical’ character of our armed forces and their subordination to the political leadership are routinely taken for granted. But these norms and institutional arrangements are not forces of nature. They were deliberately and carefully nurtured in the early years of the republic. Events of the past few days underline the fact that these are now under unprecedented stress. The media’s attention and public interest will wane soon, but the process of repairing the damage done will take long.

Injured innocence

Consider, for a start, the general’s holding of hands with Mr. Modi on a political platform, soon after the latter was declared the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The ostensible reason was General Singh’s desire to advance the cause of ex-servicemen, particularly their demand that the government adopt a policy of ‘one-rank, one-pension.’ Adopting an air of injured innocence, General Singh has claimed that his agenda was not political but nationalist. Surely the general was not unaware of the burgeoning links between the BJP and groups of ex-servicemen? Indeed, in the wake of the controversy, the president of Tamil Nadu BJP Ex-Servicemen Cell has circulated a note openly exhorting former soldiers to directly involve themselves in politics. The note adds for good measure that the BJP should be their party of choice owing to its “nationalistic outlook, candour, integrity of showing equal concern to all religions and their unfailing support for the Indian Armed Forces.”

In effect, General Singh has given his imprimatur to such brazen attempts at politicising associations of ex-servicemen and, at one remove, the armed forces themselves. For, the professional and social ties linking retired and serving personnel are very strong and there is no way of creating a fire-wall between them. It is wrong to assume that this trend of politicisation is of recent origin and is triggered by the agitation of ex-servicemen over pensions. Even if the government concedes their demands, this trend is unlikely to be easily reversed. The central problem is the dilution of the institutional ethos and norms within the armed forces. In a context of economic growth and expanding opportunities, the armed forces are no longer content simply to ‘serve with honour’ or to place ‘service before self’. The challenge for the military leadership is to craft new norms and practices that help bridge the growing gap between the armed forces and Indian society. So long as the military feels tempted to place its corporate interests above its institutional identity, it will remain susceptible to politicisation — especially by parties that claim to be best placed to advance these interests.

The leaking of an internal army inquiry shortly after General Singh’s appearance with Mr. Modi suggests that it was done deliberately to discredit the former army chief. Irrespective of the facts of the case, this is appallingly irresponsible. But it is also symptomatic of a civilian leadership that is unwilling to fix the flaws in the relationship between the government and the armed forces. The apathy of the political leadership has had a two-fold institutional impact. First, the military feels that political control has degenerated into bureaucratic control. An archaic institutional structure that keeps the armed forces headquarters separate from the Ministry of Defence has encouraged an adversarial relationship between the military leadership and the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Defence. It is in this context that such a sensitive report has been leaked.

Second, the political leadership has also been unwilling to assert its prerogatives on a range of issues. In the past few years, the political leadership has shied away from pulling up the military even when the latter transgressed into the political domain. Think of the army’s opposition to withdrawal from Siachen and to the repeal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. By publicly portraying both issues as ‘operational’ rather than policy matters, the army effectively hobbled the government’s political posture. Even more egregious was General Singh’s decision to take the government to court over the question of his extension. The right political response would have been to sack him. Instead the Defence Minister went out of his way to deny that there was any problem between the government and the army chief. The flip side to this disinclination to keep the military in its place is the tendency to resort to leaks and insinuations — actions that undermine both the morale of the military and national security.

Grim consequences

The consequences of the recent disclosures and of General Singh’s sweeping and tactless response are likely to be grim. At the very least, they have given a serious setback to the democratic process in Jammu & Kashmir. The legitimacy of all parties and groups that have participated in this process has been indelibly tainted. The army’s claims about winning the ‘hearts and minds’ of the people have been shredded to bits. The anti-India groups have been handed a propaganda coup on the platter. Picking up the pieces is going to be a long and arduous process. In the face of these developments, New Delhi’s habitual complacency over Kashmir could prove disastrous.

That said, the episode also raises troubling questions about the role of intelligence agencies in a democratic system. Political control of intelligence is in some ways analogous to political control of the military. As with the military, the intelligence agencies are expected to be professionally competent and efficient, and yet responsive to civilian authority and judgment. Striking an optimum balance between efficiency and control, expertise and legitimacy in the functioning of intelligence is all the more difficult owing to an undeniable requirement: that of secrecy. The issue of secrecy is a particularly thorny one in democracies, for this form of government is premised on openness, well-functioning circuits of information and robust debate. Yet, there is an obvious need to keep the activities of intelligence agencies away from the public glare and restricted to the smallest possible circle within the government.

The problem is further complicated by the fact that even within an intelligence agency, information is shared on a strict need-to-know basis. The requirement of secrecy naturally provides wide latitude to the agencies and limits the extent of executive control. Further, many supplementary methods of exercising top-down control — statutory audits and inspections, investigations by law-enforcement agencies, close legislative scrutiny, coverage by the press — are difficult to apply to intelligence agencies. If these methods are to be effectively employed, it will necessitate greater diffusion of knowledge about the agencies’ activities.

Historically, the agencies have seldom shied away from exploiting these limits to political oversight. Take the case of the Intelligence Bureau. After independence, the IB continued to maintain close links with its former parental organisation, the MI5. Recently released MI5 documents show that the first director of the IB, T.G. Sanjevi Pillai, cooperated with British officials in keeping a tab on the Indian high commissioner to London, V.K. Krishna Menon — a man they deeply distrusted for his alleged communist leanings. Examples can easily be multiplied.

The nub of the problem is the absence of legislation that governs the functioning of the various intelligence agencies, including military intelligence. This is an essential prelude to other oversight mechanisms such as an active parliamentary standing committee on intelligence. The intelligence agencies must be accountable — and not just to their political masters.

The response to current imbroglio will require concerted action on several fronts: by the military, by the political leadership and by Parliament. Business as usual is no longer an option.

(A former infantry officer, Srinath Raghavan is Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi)

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Printable version | Aug 9, 2020 3:49:16 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-general-and-his-stink-bombs/article5182762.ece

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