Mastering the art of politicization

By Maj Gen (R) Ashok K Mehta

Surgical strikes have been used to the hilt by the BJP which prides itself on its commitment to the military and national security. With the launch of the video, it is at it again. It is unfortunate that the already politicized issue of surgical strikes against terror camps in PoK was revived through a video clip, 20 months after the event. It triggered a tsunami of competitive nationalism among ‘loyal to Government’ TV channels, a bitter battle of words between the BJP and the Congress and sporadic criticism by military experts.
It would have been better to let sleeping dogs lie. It will, however, be useful to recall two of the many epochal statements made by the BJP president Amit Shah following the surgical strikes. First, that it was the first time in 68 years that Indian troops crossed the LoC. Second, the party would take the issue of surgical strikes to the people.
The LoC has been crossed many times in the past covertly for similar raids. Our political class is severely deficient in military history, strategic thinking and political direction of operations and war. They rely on the generalist civil service, making it the blind leading the blind. Surgical strikes, and later Doklam, were used by the Government during the elections for political gains, particularly to showcase the strategic acumen of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
I was among the seven military veterans who were briefed by Army chief Dalbir Singh and DGMO Lt Gen Ranbir Singh on the morning after the surgical strikes. Those facts do not require repetition. The video clip is authentic but for a layman, difficult to decipher. It could have been taken out of any Sylvester Stallone movie.
Even before going public, the DGMO displayed exceptional civility in informing his Pakistani counterpart immediately after the last commando was back home that the target of the strikes was not the Pakistan Army but terrorist launch pads. He added that there were no plans for further strikes. This was Incredible India. Pakistan helped by denying the strikes altogether and called the video clip ‘farcical’. Fortunately, this prevented retaliation and escalation for which India was unprepared. The rest is folklore.
This was not the first time a raid/raids were carried out covertly. Yes, it was the first time multiple and coordinated raids were executed across the LoC and the Army, instead of maintaining silence and secrecy, was asked by the Government to go public for the first time ever. According to the Army, the operation was in retribution for the terrorist attack at Uri.
Contrary to claims then that the surgical strikes as also the demonetisation that followed would deter Pakistan’s cross-border terrorism, the spin now is that it was primarily a revenge attack. What happened in the past were silent raids including exchanging body parts of military personnel. I have witnessed such mutual bestiality since 1957 on both sides of the PirPanjal range. The ground situation changed significantly after the rigged elections of 1987 when the seeds of insurgency were sown.
Today, even the military community is divided over the merits of releasing the video clip. The disclosure can be viewed as a force multiplier for the forthcoming Assembly Elections but anyone who questions the military utility of the strikes is considered anti-national. Further, it does little to cheer the military whose modernisation woes have been publicised by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence chaired by BJP military veteran, Maj Gen BC Khanduri. The Government’s latest charade is of the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft 2.0 (MMRCA) for the Indian Air Force.
About marketing the strikes, as pledged by Shah, full marks to him and Modi’s team for their superb advertising skills. The surgical strikes were first milked in Lucknow by former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar at public rallies in October-November 2016. I was with the Army in Central Command Lucknow and was, therefore, privy to Parrikar’s operations. Posters and hoardings blanketed Lucknow as never before. Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, also in town, was clouded by BJP event managers. What was striking was that for the first time, posters and banners carried pictures of the DGMO, Lt Gen Singh flanked by Modi, Shah, and Parrikar. This depiction was gross politicisation of the Army and the General who is today the Northern Army Commander. This was not all. A few days later, Modi arrived in Lucknow at a public felicitation at the grand Sheesh Mahal.
BJP and RSS leaders indulged in grandstanding, talking up Modi as the conqueror in chief and presenting him with the mace of conquest. This Army-reflected glory was lapped up by the BJP brass as Parrikar narrated stories of how he had injected in the Army the great Hanuman spirit. In every election since Uttar Pradesh, surgical strikes have found a mention, including in Karnataka where Modi’s scriptwriters got their history of the Kodava Generals Cariappa and Thimayya completely wrong. Once again, Modi is denigrating the Congress and politicising the Army for votes.
However modest, surgical strikes were morale boosters. For the common man, it meant India was not always going to turn the other cheek. In that sense, it lifted the morale of the people but it did nothing to stop Pakistan from fighting its proxy war even more violently. After the victory in the 1971 war, Indira Gandhi was deified as Durga and Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw as the key architect of victory. On June 27, a day after Modi tore into the Congress for the Emergency, was Manekshaw’s 10th death anniversary. Except for Meghna Gulzar, who is making a film on the iconic Manekshaw, no one spared a thought for him.
The BJP prides itself on its commitment to the military and national security. It considers OROP as its crowning glory. But having squeezed the Army for maximum political advantage, it has done little for modernisation, enhancing capacities, defence reforms, and status vis-à-vis civilian services. The strategic utility of a 2-km deep incursion is questionable. Last Saturday, a Citizens Conclave in New Delhi pledged to safeguard the Constitution, the judiciary, civil services and the armed forces.
A military veteran noted that the armed forces and civil services are pandering to those in power. The reverse is also true. The political class must not forget that the armed forces are secular, apolitical and professional. Once-in-68 years military operations must be game-changers and never politicised. National interest must not become synonymous with winning elections.
The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the revamped Integrated Defence Staff.

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