While there is little clarity on the effect of the raids conducted by the India Army across the Line of Control on September 29, the political debate that the event set off has taken on a life of its own. Both the Aam Aadmi Party and the Congress are trying hard to limit the political gains the Bharatiya Janata Party will able to earn from this. The response of the BJP to this – supported by some sections of the media – has been a call to not politicise the surgical strikes.
Of course, what this misses out is the BJP’s own efforts to politicise the operation, apparently with an eye to the 2017 Uttar Pradesh elections. More fundamentally, this line of argument ignores the fact that it is the job of politicians in a democracy to, well, politicise things. Debating and discussing public issues allows the Indian people to claim a stake in policy and acts as a check on the government’s power.
BJP takes credit
The September 29 raids were not the first time the Indian Army has crossed the Line of Control but it was the first time the Union government had openly admitted to doing so. One possible motivation was to embarrass Pakistan and send a very public message that its support to terror would have consequences. Of course, the announcement also undoubtedly helps the BJP in its domestic politics – a benefit the Congress could never claim, given that it remained silent about the army raids during its administration.
In Uttar Pradesh, which goes to polls soon, the BJP state party president has already announced that Prime Minister Narendra Modi might be going to Lucknow to celebrate the festival of Vijaydashami, making sure to mention that “the government is deserving of all accolades for responding strongly to threats by Pakistan”. A report in the Hindu mentions that the party feels an “overarching sentiment of nationalism could mediate some of the caste equations that have gone awry recently”.
Already, posters across Uttar Pradesh celebrate the surgical strikes and categorically credit the Bharatiya Janata Party for it. The BJP’s earlier argument that the army’s actions remain above politics has been discarded, it seems.
Given these moves by the BJP, it natural that the Opposition will also move in to try and stake a position on the surgical strikes. In fact, to try and deprecate this competitive politics in a democracy by calling it “politicisation” misunderstands the very nature of democracy where competition between parties drives public good. In a free society, debate and discussion acts like sunlight, helping to disinfect any rot that might set into the system. The hustle and bustle of politics in a democracy might look unseemly but it keeps governments on the right path and acts as a check on tyranny.
Politicisation is democracy
The checks and balances of democratic politics apply to all function of a government – including defence. In fact, given how important defence is, it might even be said it is applicable especially to defence. In a democracy such as India, the armed forces are firmly under civilian control. The Indian Army reports to the Union government, which in turn serves at the pleasure of an elected parliament. In other words, the army reports to politicians.
To argue that defence policy should not be politicised is a curious position to take. Given that politicians are making defence policy in the first place, the matter is a political one right from the start. An argument to oppose politicisation is therefore a rather thinly veiled appeal to basically place the Union government beyond reproach.
The people of India have, against many odds, managed to create and sustain a functioning democracy. Critiquing every function of the government – including the Army – is a necessary ingredient to make this democratic system work. Many Indians who feel the need to have a system where the army cannot be questioned, should first look across the country’s western border.
In Pakistan, this is exactly the system that is in place, with the army growing to be so powerful as to conduct multiple coups against civilians governments. Even today, with a civilian government in place, it is widely understood that defence policy is conducted solely by the Pakistani Army and the federal government has little role to play in it. Pakistanis would, in fact, give an arm and a leg to be able to “politicise” their defence policy and take it out of the hands of their generals. Indians who wish for politicians to not question the army and its actions should be careful what they wish for.