CONFINED TO THE BARRACKS- General elections and the Election of the Generals
|Politics and play - Ramachandra Guha|
In the late 1990s, I had the privilege of sharing a platform in Berkeley with a gifted Indonesian activist named George Aditjondro. He was then stateless, living as a refugee, having been exiled from his homeland because of his participation in social movements aimed at embarrassing the military regime. In one campaign, aimed at a very large dam from which the Generals and their contractors would make millions of dollars in commissions, Aditjondro had coined the slogan, 'Megawatt NO! Megawati YES!' (Megawati Sukarnoputri then being the principal leader of the democratic opposition).
That day in Berkeley, Aditjondro and I were speaking at a panel on the politics of environment in Asia, he focusing on his country, I on mine. At one stage I said something very nasty about Indian politicians. Aditjondro acknowledged the force of my criticisms, but added that "at least in India you have general elections, which are free and fair. In Indonesia we have Elections of the Generals, which are doctored and managed beforehand."
I was reminded of that (witty as well as wise) remark some months ago, when I received a circular SMS pertaining to the affidavit filed by General V.K. Singh asking that his year of birth be changed in the official record from 1950 to 1951. As it happened, General Singh's application was made at about the same time that President Zardari of Pakistan disappeared without explanation to Dubai, fuelling rumours of a military coup. The SMS I received juxtaposed these two events in the following manner: "In India; Government decides age of Army Chief/ In Pakistan, Army Chief decides age of Government."
The control of the military by the civilian government marks India out from countries such as Burma, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia and China, where men in uniform have played an important and often determining role in national politics. This is, in some part, a consequence of the fact that while armed nationalists led or dominated the liberation struggles of those countries, in India independence was won by a movement conducted largely on non-violent lines.
That in India the army has always been confined to the barracks stands out most strikingly when one looks across the border to Pakistan. The two countries have a shared history, culture and legal system. Why then has the military been restricted to its professional duties in one country, whereas it has played such a dominant role in the politics and economics of the other country?
I have often thought of this contrast in the past, but General V.K. Singh's persistent penchant for newsmaking has forced me finally to think more seriously about it. Here, then, are six reasons why, unlike in Pakistan, Generals in India have stayed far away from running governments, and from political life more generally:
First, there is a far older and far stronger tradition of political parties in India. The Congress was formed in 1885; by 1917, it had attracted large sections of the urban middle class; after 1917, under Gandhi's leadership, it reached deep into the countryside as well. The social depth of the Congress contrasted sharply with the elite nature of the Muslim League, which was formed in 1909 and several decades later became the main organizational instrument by which Pakistan was created. The Muslim League had a presence in a few states of British India; everywhere, it was dominated by large landlords. Moreover, apart from the Congress, there were other important parties in India such as the Hindu Mahasabha and the Communists, the Akalis and the Dravida Kazhagam. The institutional shallowness of the Muslim League, and the absence of other countervailing parties, created a vacuum, which the army in Pakistan was only too ready to fill.
Second, there was a large-scale recruitment of Punjabi Muslims into the British Indian Army during World War II. This consolidated an existing martial tradition so that, when Punjab became the most important province of Pakistan, its soldiers could throw their weight around far more effectively than soldiers in India.
Third, the Pakistani elite is far more obsessed with India than the Indian elite is with Pakistan (the latter is concerned rather with the threat, real or imagined, from China). Pakistan was from its origins defined as 'not India', indeed as 'anti-India', these definitions becoming more solid due to the failure to capture the Valley of Kashmir and the loss of Bangladesh. These defeats have made elite Pakistanis even more determined to get even with India, an endeavour in which the military has naturally to play the leading role.
Fourth, Pakistan had the bad luck of becoming a front-line state in the Cold War. The United States of America identified it as a client state, initiating an arms pact in 1954 and making Pakistan join pro-Western organizations like CENTO. In 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, as a consequence of which Pakistan came even closer to the Americans. As arms and armaments rained in, the position of the army within Pakistani society became stronger, and that of parties and politicians weaker.
Fifth, the political leadership of independent India — Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel in particular — made it clear to the military at the start that it would play a role far diminished from that enjoyed in colonial times. When the British ruled India, the country's most important official, after the viceroy, was the commander-in-chief (hence, Teen Murti House became the second grandest home in New Delhi).
After Independence, the chief of army staff was made to report to a defence minister, who, in turn, reported to the prime minister while being answerable also to an elected Parliament. Meanwhile, a revised warrant of precedence also showed the military its proper place. Here, the army chief was placed in the 25th position, below the president, prime minister, cabinet ministers, governors, below even chief justices of high courts and members of the Planning Commission.
Sixth, the army in Pakistan remains a main avenue for individuals of talent and ambition. In India, on the other hand, with its more open political system and its more dynamic economy, an ambitious young man can become a lawyer, doctor, civil servant or entrepreneur. Over time, these professions have, in fact, become more attractive than a career in the army — with the consequence that there is now a shortage of officers in the latter. In Pakistan, on the other hand, the military has, apart from the latest and best planes, guns, ships and so on, also acquired real estate, offices, hotels and shopping complexes, expanding its economic hold on the country and making entry into its fold more appealing still.
There may be yet other reasons — for instance, the fact that to capture power in India, the army must simultaneously overthrow 28 elected state governments. At any rate, the non-political role of the army, and the continuing supremacy of the civilian government over men in uniform, is one of Indian democracy's great and enduring achievements. Never since Independence has the army even remotely transgressed into the political domain — in such sharp contrast to other countries across Asia, and in Africa and Latin America as well, which have been run for long periods as military dictatorships. Whatever one thinks of General V.K. Singh, A.K. Anthony, and the controversies about corruption real or alleged, this is an achievement in which we may all collectively take pride.