INK YOUR INDEX FINGER, SOLDIER…

The Right to Vote, though not a Fundamental Right, is a Constitutional Right of every citizen guaranteed under Article 326 of the Indian Constitution. This right ought to be exercised by every responsible Indian citizen above the age of 18 as it provides the opportunity to choose representatives who will govern us as a nation and a state – we can therefore enjoy the benefits of good choices and suffer the consequences of bad ones. Sometimes, of course, none of the alternatives available may meet our aspirations or approval in which case one can exercise the ‘None of the above’ or NOTA option. The efficacy of such a choice is however, debatable but we will leave that discussion for another day.

My focus today is to urge every soldier to make his or her vote count. The right to vote is fortunately one of the rights a soldier still enjoys despite several other curbs on rights and freedoms. The Government on its part has made tremendous efforts to ensure that every citizen including all our soldiers, sailors and air warriors are able to exercise their franchise. However, one is not sure how seriously the soldiers are taking themselves on this count. There is a commonly held notion within and outside the uniformed establishment that the functioning of the armed forces is ‘Government-independent’ – and hence, the general indifference towards voting among soldiers is understandable to a degree. However, it has also created a widely held impression that the armed forces do not matter in electoral politics. It is nobody’s fault. It has just been that way and nothing could be farther from the truth. 

Some basic statistics will place the matter in perspective. It is estimated that India’s General Elections 2019 will have about 900 million Indians in the electoral rolls. The Indian armed forces are about 1.4 million strong. If approximately 50% of them are married, that takes the number to about 2.1 million. Add a few more dependents who are eligible to vote and we are looking at a number of about 2.5 million, give or take a few thousands. In overall terms, it is 0.0028 per cent of the entire electorate and that is why neither the political wannabes nor the soldiers themselves think that they are important in the electoral calculations. The voting populations of Lok Sabha constituencies vary from about 47000 to 31 lakhs across India. Vidhan Sabha constituencies are much smaller. For example, Pune has 4 Lok Sabha constituencies but 33 Vidhan Sabha constituencies. It is obvious that smaller numbers of votes can matter significantly in smaller constituencies whereas larger constituencies need larger numbers to influence outcomes.

However, numbers by themselves tell an incomplete story. The armed forces are located either in concentrated areas in fairly large numbers or in smaller towns and cities where their presence in comparison to the local population can easily make a dent on electoral outcomes. For example, in cantonment areas, the armed forces will have numbers that local MLA aspirants simply cannot ignore. Similarly, in large stations or in smaller constituencies of far flung areas, soldiers can play a significant role in determining poll verdicts. This potential has not been realised so far for several reasons, which are thankfully being addressed now. However, more can be done.

The very first thing is to tell soldiers to take themselves seriously and along with all eligible family members, exercise their franchise without fail in every election. Next, each and every soldier, sailor and air warrior must register as a General Voter at his or her place of posting. This is the only way of ensuring that votes are cast physically. Registering as a Service Voter entitles the individual to a postal ballot which is procedurally somewhat cumbersome where a paper physically needs to move to the Returning Officer after a series of checks and verifications. The effectiveness of such a procedure is low. With online processing of enrolments, registering every soldier as a General Voter must be ensured within a month of each posting as a mandatory routine. There is also a need to bring the voting booth to the soldier. If this is done for the Shompens in Great Nicobar, where hardly anybody votes, there is no reason why voting by each soldier, wherever he or she is posted, cannot be positively ensured. The armed forces on their part, must ensure adequate time off is given to all on polling days so that every soldier can exercise his or her franchise. It would greatly help the cause if military voters in a particular station as well as their families and dependents are allocated just one or two constituencies where their votes could be concentrated. This would raise the stakes of both the electorate as well as the MP/MLA aspirants in ensuring growth and prosperity of the constituency.

The modern soldier is educated, tech savvy and aware of his rights and deprivations much more than his lesser interested predecessors ever were. If the right conditions are facilitated, soldiers would make informed choices based on a multitude of factors that affect their lives. The fact that they did not have decent weapons, clothing, housing, rations or were not adequately compensated for risk and hardship may well influence their decisions. More informed soldiers could well base their decisions on how well we may be doing on military readiness, procurements, civil-military relations, erosion of status vis-à-vis other government services and similar issues apart from other considerations of civil society. The soldier must become relevant in electoral mathematics.

So step out soldier – and ink your index finger!

SENIORITY AND SUPERSESSION IN PERSPECTIVE…

We are witnessing a supersession debate in public, once again over the appointment of a Service Chief designate. This is not the first time a Service Chief will be superseded and it will not be the last. But whenever this happens, a spate of reactions follow – most of which are opinions and misinformed conjectures, leaving men and women both in uniform and out of it bewildered. So what is this about seniority and supersession in a Service Chief’s appointment that makes headlines and evokes such passionate responses?

In armed forces worldwide and certainly in the Indian armed forces, seniority is sacred. This unique and important characteristic is deeply ingrained in young military minds in the process of indoctrination at boot camp academies across the armed forces, both among officers and enlisted personnel – and for very good reason.

The essential difference between the rest of society and the armed forces is that while the former live and work to realise a future where wealth and prosperity will be assured for them and their kin, the latter train to fight and lay down their lives if necessary, in the line of duty. In such a starkly contrasting life-ethos, concepts like seniority have hugely different meanings and intents. In the civil private sector, for example, life moves mostly in short spells. A typical work spell could be 3 to 5 years, when greener pastures beckon. Environments change, colleagues change and bosses change. Bottom-line finances are the only determinants of success. At the topmost echelon, the person with the highest potential to make money for the organisation being the boss is an accepted norm. In family run businesses, the owner and the inner family circle call the shots – age, sex, gender, qualification or suitability notwithstanding.

In the bureaucracy and public sector, there is a little more permanence and the organisational structure is much flatter compared to the steep pyramidal structure of the armed forces. There is assured career progression till fairly senior ranks and non-functional pay increases even if people are not promoted. There are cases where promotions are refused for other personal considerations. A government job of any description is seen as an instrument of getting through life with minimum work and maximum benefits. There is some respect for seniority but it is mostly deft writing of recruitment rules that lands people plum posts as they climb the ladder. Movement out to low visibility jobs are not uncommon when individuals fall out of favour. It is an evolved game of ‘snakes and ladders’.

In sharp contrast, the armed forces can never deliver in conflict without the utmost respect for seniority and the highest standards of professionalism. Leading men in war or conflict is not an easy task. This is not possible without unquestioning loyalty and belief of soldiers, sailors and air warriors in their superiors and an unflinching adherence to seniority as well as the command and control hierarchy. So critical is this aspect, that insubordination or mutinous behaviour in conflict or war is one of the gravest of offences attracting the severest of all punishments. It is for this reason that the armed forces hold seniority sacred.

Now comes the interesting part – the relationship between seniority and supersession. Simply put, one is senior till superseded by a junior. Every officer in the armed forces other than Service Chiefs and Commanders-in-Chief is superseded at some stage or the other. Most other three-star ranking officers superannuate at or before reaching the level of Commanders-in-Chief. At lower rungs of the pyramid, selection or supersession is based purely on demonstrated performance and here the number of officers sidelined are extraordinarily high. Rejections continue at every level till one lucky person, by some quirk of fate (his date of birth), ends up with the top job. There is hardly any fuss raised at lower levels for loss of promotions. A few officers do represent their grievance but internal mechanisms deal with them effectively and those superseded move on in life gracefully. So what is the big deal about a Service Chief contender being superseded?

There is this argument of competence or merit. The Service Chiefs are selected from a panel of the senior-most Commanders-in-Chief who have gone past stringent and intensely competitive milestones of commands, promotions, courses and challenging assignments. There should be no doubt about their individual capabilities, professional credentials or other attributes without which it is rather unlikely that they would have merited selection to head operational Commands in the first place. However, the authority of the Union Government in selecting a Service Chief is also absolute and must be respected. Having exercised this authority, the Government could consider a graceful way of informing superseded Service Chief contenders of the reasons for their supersession. Hopefully, grace would beget grace and courts would be spared the agony of intervening in the matter. More importantly, it would reaffirm faith in the rank and file as also among the public at large that offices of Service Chiefs are above politics, as they have always been. May grace prevail – now and in the future.