Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The unsung heroes of Indian democracy

The unsung heroes of Indian democracy: Express Buzz
Vir Sanghvi First Published: 27 Jun 2010 01:28:54 AM IST

Do you know the name of the Chief of Army Staff? The Chief of Air Staff? The Chief of Naval Staff? Or, if you want to stick to the army, the most high-profile of the three services, do you know the name of the Deputy Chief of Army Staff?

Okay, I am guessing here but I reckon that you had difficulty naming all three service chiefs and had to struggle with remembering the name of the Deputy Army Chief before giving up.

Is this a bad thing? Well, it is if you look at American parallel. In that country, generals are huge media figures. General David Petraeus, who was behind the surge in Iraq, has been on innumerable magazine covers, takes questions from interviewers on TV on a regular basis and was even cited by John McCain in the Presidential debate as the cure for all of America’s war ills.

Nor is this new. American generals have always been public figures. You could argue, that during the Second World War, America needed to publicise such figures as General Eisenhower (who commanded the D-Day operation and later became President) and General Patton (later the subject of a hit movie starring George C Scott). But in the post-war phase many generals have become household names: Douglas McArthur, William Westmoreland, Norman Schwarzkopf and of course Colin Powell.

Moreover, generals often cross the divide to join politics. Eisenhower and Powell may be among the best known but there are loads of others including Alexander Haig (who died recently) who was Richard Nixon’s Chief of Staff, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state and who was once regarded as a potential president. The American parallel is significant because of a blow-out that occurred last week. General Stanley McChrystal, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, was profiled by Rolling Stone magazine. In the profile, the General and his staff made several disparaging remarks about the civilians on the administration’s Afghanistan strategy team and sneered at Vice-President Joe Biden.

The quotes were leaked in advance of publication, set off a predictable uproar and led President Obama to take the virtually unprecedented step of calling McChrystal to Washington and firing him face-to-face over a 30-minute meeting at the White House. McChrystal is well-known in the US, has frequently been interviewed and has regularly appeared on TV. Perhaps, as a consequence, Obama made sure that his replacement was even more high-profile: General Petraeus.

What’s interesting is that neither Petraeus nor McChrystal are America’s equivalent of our Chief of Staff. Yet the media profile they enjoy in the US is higher than any Indian army chief (with the possible exception of Sam Manekshaw in the years after the Bangladesh victory) has ever enjoyed. Some of this may have to do with the fact that both Petraeus and McChrystal commanded armies in countries where the US was at war. But it is hard to think of an Indian parallel where Indian commanders (not the Chief himself) are so well-known even during war time.

Nor do our generals become so personally identified with the war effort. Colin Powell and Norman Schwarzkopf became heroes on the back of the first Gulf War while much of the anti-war fervour during Vietnam was focused on William Westmoreland (who even got abused in anti-war-songs) personally.

Maureen Dowd, in the New York Times, suggests that McChrystal was “a product of the warrior-god culture: four-star generals with their own public relations teams.” And it is certainly true that American generals have their own media teams and are frequently advised on how to project their own images. Dowd’s is a recurring theme in US criticism of the army. In the best-selling book, Seven Days in May, a charismatic General (played by Burt Lancaster in the film version) plots to overthrow the President. And when President Harry Truman fired the iconic General Douglas McArthur over differences on policy towards China, there were fears that such was McArthur’s popularity that Truman might damage his own standing by axing such a “warrior-god”.

I have often thought that one reason why Americans find it so easy to do business with military dictators in South America, East Asia and Pakistan is that they are used to the idea of formidable military men. We find soldiers who have seized power faintly repulsive. Americans, on the other hand, warm to them. But when you think about it, there is something intriguing about our refusal to worship “warrior gods” particularly when we contrast it with the US experience. America’s wars (Vietnam, Iraq, Korea, Afghanistan, etc.) are all fought abroad and do not really place its own civilians at risk. Our wars are fought at home and the consequences of defeat can be dramatic: in 1962, we thought we had lost Assam; in 1965, the intention was to wrest away Kashmir. Because there is so much at stake, you might expect us to focus more on the men who command our armies.

Yet, curiously, neither the Indian people nor the Indian army want to change the balance between the profiles of the military and the civilian administration. In 1965, we admired General J N Chaudhuri who commanded the army but within a few years, he had dropped out of sight. In 1971, Western analysts kept suggesting that Manekshaw was popular enough to stage a coup. Not only was this view mistaken, but the General (or Field Marshal as he later became) showed no such inclination.

One of the most interesting things about our commanders is that even those we have held in the highest esteem — men like General Jagjit Singh Aurora or Air Marshal Arjan Singh — have never sought the limelight. In the aftermath of Kargil, General V P Malik could have parlayed that victory into a huge public profile for himself. Instead, he opted for a quiet retirement and now, has to be persuaded to come to Delhi or to talk to the media. Consequently, a situation has developed where Indians are content to let the army be. It is unthinkable for any magazine to want to profile an army commander (below the level of chief) or to assign a journalist to follow him around, the way Rolling Stone did with McChrystal.

And even when journalists do try and get generals to talk most are tight-lipped. (It helps, I think, that most military men have a barely repressed contempt for the press!) Even when they do talk, off-the-record, rarely do senior officers seek any personal publicity for themselves.

Contrast this with McChrystal. According to the Rolling Stone journo who wrote the story, not only did McChrystal make most of the damaging remarks within the first two days of their interaction, but the general’s staff insisted that the journo fly out to Afghanistan. In that sense, the general came across like a movie star eager to secure favourable coverage for his new release.

To the credit of our forces, no Indian general would behave that way.

I’m not sure why this is. It cannot be that our generals are simply respecting British tradition. The Pakistani army also came from the same stock and their generals tend to be megalomaniacs and publicity-hounds.

I suspect that the army’s readiness to remain in the background and the low profile chosen by its generals are both relatively unsung manifestations of the success of Indian democracy. Even in this media-crazy age, our officers have not been swayed by the glory of personal publicity or lusted for fame. One more thing to be grateful to our armed forces for.
— Exclusive to TNSE. More at www.virsanghvi.com. Follow him at twitter.com/virsanghvi
The unsung heroes of Indian democracy

Writing in the TIME magazine at the height of the Emergency in August 1975, Claire Sterling wrote: “Neither development is likely to leave the Indian Army unmoved. And that is perhaps the crux of the situation. India’s standing Army of nearly a million men has been resolutely non-political since Independence. But it is also sensitive to the smallest slight to its honour, dignity and military independence, not to mention the nation’s sovereignty; and it is steeped in loyalty to constitutional principles……”.

The article concludes: “Depending on how fast and how far she goes in changing from a traditional Prime Minister to the one-woman ruler of a police state, the Indian Army ~ the one group with the power to stop the process ~ could intervene. If it were to do so, it would almost certainly be not to replace her with a military dictator , but to restore the institutions it has been drilled in to defending since birth”.

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