New Delhi: The Indian Army has become a victim of growing domestic political divisions which have been exacerbated by the approaching general elections. If one side of the political divide uses the army in a highly suspect exercise to burnish its nationalistic credentials, the other calls to question credible operations against the adversary in a clear case of cutting off the nose to spite the face. Veterans in politics or cheerleaders for the regime add to the negative politicization of the army without giving a thought that it hurts the institution they presumably served with devotion. Finally, the leadership of the army leaves much to be desired, where solid and persevering generalship is forgone for speaking out of turn, ill-judged comments are made about sensitive issues like Jammu and Kashmir, and there is too-close identification with the regime and its ideology. To be sure, these negative trends are not new, and they also involve other services, chief of them the air force. At all events, the services have acquired a disagreeable high political profile lately which impairs their institutional capacities and neutrality, imbalances civil-military relations, and in the long run affects strategic preparedness. The armed forces perform best when secluded from public glare meeting the political objectives given to them. A return to that tradition is vastly desired.

Take, for example, the so-called surgical strike that was executed by the army on 28-29 September 2016 across the Line of Control targeting Pakistani terror camps. The operation was brilliantly planned and conducted and successful beyond doubt but the over-the-top publicity that followed likely on Narendra Modi’s orders effectively took the sting out of it. Cross LoC/ border strikes were conducted by both sides before the September 2016 operation with obviously varying objectives and there is nothing to suggest that they have discontinued since. The Modi regime’s excuse for making the operation public was apparently to deter further Pakistani terrorist infiltrations but Pakistan, contrarily, has felt emboldened. There is a military logic to this which is not really central to this piece. The more cynical and probably true reason for the publicity was to give Modi’s regime a halo of muscular nationalism. The regime milked the strike for all it was worth in the February-March 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly election to which demonetization of the previous winter was joined to create an unlevel playing field for the opposition.

Because the Modi regime politicized the strike, sections of the opposition went to another insane extreme to deny it altogether. Their ridiculous justification was that Pakistan had denied the strike as it naturally would. One wrong was compounded by another. When the strike was at length established as genuine (of which this writer had not the slightest doubt), the regime magnified it as a war victory, incomparable to anything in the past, perhaps eclipsing even the 1971 Bangladesh war victory. This was nonsense. But veterans and the serving army leadership too attributed extraordinary significance to the strike. Such power did this narrative acquire that the strike was made into a feature film. From its timing months before the general election, it is obvious that “Uri” is a propaganda film. The strike certainly deserved better. Politicization by the Modi regime has devalued it.

Regimes come and go, but it is the army as an institution that suffers from politicization of operations. A counter trend of denigrating the September 2016 strike has commenced as the Modi regime gives the appearance of being on its last legs. There is a quaint media report of a plan to seize several Pakistani LoC posts in 2001 to permanently end Pakistani infiltration. The Atal Behari Vajpayee government is implicitly blamed for disregarding the plan considered doughtier than anything achieved by the “surgical strike”. Militaries routinely make plans but their final evaluation and clearance comes from the political leadership as it should. This writer would hesitate to pass judgement on Vajpayee concerning the plan if such a plan existed. What hurts is that military operations are being politicized to settle political and ideological scores. It was never so vicious before Narendra Modi blew his own trumpet about the 2016 strike.

The armed forces have been further damaged by the unwisdom of their chiefs. Without putting too fine a point to it, the army chief simply does not know when to speak what and when to remain mum. Threats to Pakistan are so routinely made that they have lost their menace. When winning hearts and minds is the key to Kashmir peace, the army chief has been talking rough and reinforcing apprehensions in Kashmiris that they are not considered Indian citizens. From gays in the forces to talks with the Taliban, the chief has an embarrassing view on everything. Not to be seconded, the air force chief has weighed in on the Rafale controversy on the side of the regime. Can he vouch that the Rafale deal is honest? Does he have a basis for the claim? It is not clear if he has volunteered for the whitewash or been gently nudged. Either way, it does not reflect well on the armed forces. The sooner the three services return to isolation from competitive politics, the better for the country. India cannot travel down the roads taken by Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma.