Context: With a representative letter to the President of India, the Supreme Commander of the Indian Armed Forces, by 156 retired members of the armed forces, including eight former chiefs, on April 11, politicisation of national security in general and the armed forces in particular has taken an interesting turn. Although this development forms a part of validation of national security’s politicisation, it could prove problematic, worrisome and telling, to say the least. This is the third of a five-part series on the issue – construction of a political narrative on national security issues (and its deconstruction embedded within the arguments put forth) in the Indian context. The letter connotes concerns raised by the veterans on politicisation of the armed forces and national security as a corollary and its impact on the future of Indian democratic polity. Veterans argue that use of military institutions or their actions for political purposes are not only undesirable in a democratic polity that treats such institutions as neutral and above politics but also could open up issues that are otherwise best left for the military institutions to resolve, not necessarily through political intervention.
Arguments by veterans, either through this letter or opined through the media by a few retired generals in recent times, can be justified. However, what is discomforting is the way in which issues of national security and the role of armed and security forces in nation-building process are deliberated during election times by political leaders, military thinkers, analysts and others. Interpretations differ along political lines, narrow military lenses and lack of adequate multi-disciplinary academic rigor in public literature, serious issues related to national security go haywire as electoral dynamics keep changing pace every hour up to the final vote count. Election times are the worst times to debate national security. Debates on specific issues like Balakot, Pulwama and Rafale do not capture the entirety of the universe called national security, while such specific instances are portrayed as whole not parts as a corollary of politicisation.
Specific to the letter and sporadic opinion pieces written by retired generals in the media in the last one month or so on the issue of politicisation of national security, a set of three arguments is placed here for further deliberations.
First, let us examine meanings of two widely used terms – ‘politicisation’ and ‘national security’ – and see whether these terms can be related to current situation. Politicisation denotes ‘an action of causing an activity or event to become political in character’ or ‘the process of becoming or being made politically aware’ as per widely accepted dictionary meaning. Pulwama, Balakot, A-SAT tests and Rafale purchase, if evidences on the ground in ongoing Indian elections are to be examined and extrapolated, conform to the dictionary meaning of ‘politicisation’. Even if politicisation denotes objective assessments, it has the capacity to degenerate into subjective interpretations as is evident in Indian national debates in the run up to elections, where political parties are trying to build their own narratives that are often contradictory through third lenses (media, social media, etc.), sometimes complimentary (as in the case of paying homage to slain soldiers) and at times questionable (like questioning the intelligence failure in Pulwama or procedural problems in procurement of Rafale). Politicisation of security has the enormous capacity for formidable arguments as well as equally dominant counter narratives. The meanings of ‘national security’ differ from dictionary to collective or individual interpretations. As a noun, it refers to ‘the safety of a nation against threats such as terrorism, war, or espionage’. In a broader sense, it refers to ‘the security of a nation state, including its citizens, economy, and institutions, and is regarded as a duty of government’. Specific instances can be weaved into a political narrative, which is amply evident during current political climate.
Second, efforts of national security narrative building can produce contradictory results. Consider these:
a) At a micro level, popular reactions from two villages – veterans from Apshinge village, known as Maharashtra’s ‘military village in Satara district say ‘soldiers are political pawns’ today, while villagers from Lamahi (better known as Munshi Premchand’s birth place) and adjoining villages in Varanasi that accounted for 12 martyrs of 40 in Pulwama attacks, showed their anger against Pakistan and chanted Modi jindabad;
b) Popular reactions across national highways, especially in states like UP, Bihar and central states, appear overwhelmingly in support of muscular security choices than byways or a little into adjoining villages are more bothered about existential than national security issues;
c) Larger national security narrative is yet to permeate deep into hinterlands.
Third, the letter itself has been politicised to a large extent. Consider these:
a) Some former chiefs (including ACM NC Suri and General SF Rodrigues have denied signing the letter to the President, which has been contradicted by retired Major General Sunil Bombatkere, coordinator of the letter;
b) Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman terms the letter as part of a political strategy pursued by ‘vested interest’ during election times;
c) Indian President’s office supposedly denied receiving such a letter.
Political risks related to national security are thus considered high – such is the unpredictability factor that it could either swing a surprise or produce a dud. The central challenge of political leadership, post elections, would be how to appropriate national security narrative in the national polity. It would be interesting to see whether concerns raised by the veterans through their letter receive a proper audience or not. Unless examined to the full otherwise, such a letter and its contents are destined to be buried under political carpet as is evident now – no one refers to this letter in a political context for the last two weeks. This is what is problematic and worrisome for the state.
Deba Mohanty is a New Delhi-based security affairs analyst.
The first part of the article series can be read The second part of the article series can be read