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March 7, 1998


The Rediff Election Special/ Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd)

The saffron undervest

Amidst the cacophony surrounding the election, a small item in the media did not receive the attention it deserved. A month or so ago, 25 retired generals joined the Bharatiya Janata Party. One wonders what these worthies do after they join a political party. Are they actively campaigning for Atal Bihari Vajpaee? Or perhaps relaxing at home, dreaming of a governorship? Most of them say that they advise the party on national security issues. In that case, the advice is well known and can be summed up in one sentence. Give the armed forces back their izzat, increase the defence budget, go nuclear and institute a National Security Council.

Be that as it may, the activities of the generals after they join the party is not our concern here. What is of interest is why so many of them join the BJP with all that fanfare.

In retrospect, the action of the senior officers appears both significant and logical. Judging from the number of letters from retired servicemen which appear in the press and conversations with serving officers it is quite clear that the sympathy wave for the Hindutva cause is far more widespread amongst senior officers than may be expected. This is one of the more disquieting after-effects of Ayodhya. One has reason to believe that under their immaculate uniforms, a large number of our senior servicemen wear a saffron vest.

It is of course quite easy to spot them. They will invariably start every conversation by stating that they are really secular at heart. They have never really believed in caste or creed. But one must be fair. Don’t you think we are pampering the minorities? And what about those Pandits gunned down in Jammu and Kashmir? Enough is enough. We must put a stop to it some time. What we require is a stable government which will restore our pride and bring a bit of discipline into our life. And only the BJP can give it you.

It was not always so. During the early years of our Independence, the services stood solidly behind the ruling party. The government mostly consisted of leaders who had been at the forefront of the Independence movement. Each one was a hero in his own right. The Opposition did not really exist. Every serviceman was full of goodwill and support for the Congress. The reasons for the recent change of loyalties and the success of the right in making inroads into the rank and file of the armed forces are many and complex.

Servicemen all over the world are conservative in their outlook, a result of their upbringing, job and environment. Most of them vote Tory in Britain and Republican in the United States. They love law and order and cherish an orderly way of life. Discipline, hard work, patriotism and what are called family values are the virtues that they admire and expect of others. They normally look for simplistic solutions to every complex problem. The generally proffered solution to the country’s present problems is what is fondly called 'a bit of danda.' For some peculiar reasons the right-of-centre parties are supposed to possess all the virtues that a serviceman admires.

The general deterioration in the image of the Congress, accentuated by the number of scams already, set the stage for a shift to the right in the loyalties of servicemen.

One of the major causes for the inroads made by the Opposition is the treatment meted out to servicemen in general and the senior echelons in particular by the ruling party, be it the Congress, the Janata Dal or the United Front. The attitude of the political leaders has been indifference towards servicemen at best and arrogance and contempt at worst.

In their messes, officers incessantly talk about the way Krishna Menon treated the service chiefs. Our countrymen may long have forgotten the episode but every service officer knows about the shabby way in which Nehru treated General Thimayya, an army hero.

The hysterics in Parliament over some harmless remarks by Field Marshal Maneckshaw, the architect of our victory in 1971, are also well remembered. The public dressing down of another army chief, General Rodrigues, by a defence minister in Parliament, may have won the day but resulted in the loss of support of many senior officers.

Defence ministers are meant to stand by their troops, not distance themselves at the first embarrassing situation. Every serviceman is prepared to be fully loyal to the government but he expects an equal amount of loyalty in return. The day is long past when support could be taken for granted by throwing a few lollipops in the direction of servicemen after their retirement.

In sharp contrast to the attitude of the Congress has been the approach of the BJP. It is the only party to actively woo retired senior officers of the three services to join it before elections. If there is one thing that an all but forgotten retired officer likes, it is a bit of ego massaging.

Except on military matters, he is unlikely to hold strong beliefs or ideology, certainly not that rigid that they cannot be bent slightly to accommodate the proponents of Hindutva. Whatever their secretly held beliefs, outwardly at least the latter are sweet reasonableness. Of course, we are not for a theocratic state. In fact ours is true secularism. We are really nationalists. And of course all the minorities will be treated fairly and with compassion. We have absolutely no connection with either the VHP or the RSS, which are only cultural organisations.

Disillusioned with the fifty year rule of the Congress and the Janata, the senior officer falls easy prey to the onslaught. He, in turn, will influence scores of others who look up to him for guidance and leadership.

One of the more obvious reasons for the change in a serviceman's thinking has been our relationship with Pakistan. Since Independence, the country has fought three wars with our neighbour. Several servicemen have been killed or injured in these conflicts. Even to this day the militants, aided and abetted by Pakistan, have caused the jawans to keep a constant vigil along the border in J and K and in frozen wastes of Siachen.

To every serviceman, Pakistan has been, is and will be our principal adversary. It is natural for him to carry the antipathy to every Pakistani and by extension to every member of the minority community in India. Despite the fact that not a single case of sabotage or disloyalty occurred during the three wars, every member of the community will always be suspect.

Such a frame of mind is fertile ground for rightist propaganda. India, of course, is not the first country to suffer from this jingoist syndrome. Even a liberal and literate country like the United States disgraced itself by interning its entire Japanese American population for the total duration of the Second World War. And one wonders if any naturalised Briton named Muller might have survived in London during the blitz.

A major factor which has brought about the sympathy wave is what may be called ''the Mussolini made the trains run on time'' syndrome. Like every sensible citizen, the serviceman, too, has watched with distaste the general decline in discipline and efficiency in the country over the last three decades.

In service messes they talk nostalgically about the Emergency, when the office staff in the South Block came to work on time. They recall the late sixties when a Jan Sangh government ''straightened out New Delhi''.

Servicemen have little patience with the slow and ponderous ways of a democracy. To them the ends justify the means. What really matters is the result. What this country really needs is a good kick on the backside and the BJP would be the only party which can give it. Never mind the fact that its performance in the states that it ruled so far has not been particularly spectacular.

The final argument trotted out for the admiration wave is the 'give them a chance' plea. The Congress has been in power for over 40 years and look at the state we are in. The Janata Dal had their chance, and did not do much better. So why not give the BJP a chance? Surely they can't do any worse. In fact, with their disciplined cadres, they might do a whole lot better. They will certainly be good for the defence forces. For many servicemen that just about clinches the argument. Anything which is good for the services is certainly good for the country.

The situation would not cause alarm were the sympathy wave restricted to a few inconsequential serving and retired senior officers in the armed forces.

What is of concern is the potentially influential army of ex-servicemen which is about ready for a take over. Today the over three million ex-servicemen are a frustrated lot. Their leadership is fractured and faction ridden. Their legitimate demands for ‘one rank, one pension’ have been stalled. Successive pay commissions have done little to alleviate their plight.

Under these circumstances, one suspects that many are ready to switch loyalties and jump on the Hindutva wagon, hoping to get justice from that quarter. Being still respected and influential in their villages and small towns, they can be potentially quite useful to the rightists at the time of the election. Spending a bit of time on them at present will provide rich dividends at the right time.

The present situation should have caused the Congress to sit up and take notice. But a party which has taken the serviceman for granted for fifty years is unlikely to make amends at this late stage. Going by the past record the ethos of indifference and neglect is likely to continue.

Admiral J G Nadkarni, the former chief of the naval staff, is a frequent contributor to these pages.


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