Ethos and ethics of services
Collective revelry in the military is a well-established tradition irrespective of the situation
Even in best of environments, election time in India could turn into a high-decibel, emotional, sentimental, and volatile TV soap opera; with flowing free-for-all semantics; super pot-boiler Bollywood melodrama like (Dilip Kumar, Vyjayanthimala acted) "Ganga Jamuna" of 1961-1962; or an over-sized duet/duel "world wrestling championship" and limited over "masala cricket" of 21st century, wherein impossibility could be an instant possibility, and "possible" could do unexpected and unthinkable vanishing tricks.
Hence, one would like to steer clear of all political highway, and prefer to traverse the known/familiar route; through the time-tested ethos and ethics of the armed forces of India. All the more owing to Indian military being one of the few apolitical professional institutions in the east of Suez, especially across South Asian terrain where tin pot dictators, more often than not, did ascend the throne (in the past) of their respective nations through coups and killing unarmed civilian politicians, thereby repeatedly proving the old saying: "Today big shot. Tomorrow shot". Like Liaquat Ali, Zulfi Bhutto, Zia ul Haq and Benazir in Pakistan. And, top VVIPs in some other South Asian nations. All, directly or indirectly, connected with military.
In retrospect, therefore, Indians are lucky to owe gratitude to the foreign British (mis)ruling class that, despite committing numerous misdeeds, also created and nurtured an apolitical, professional military which stands as shining example in the midst of several coup-tainted South Asian armed forces.
Now, first things first. Two fundamentals, amongst various other factors, make forces fight to die or remain disciplined even in the face of fire. First, the famous quote of Napoleon: "An army marches on its stomach" thereby making it clear that proper and timely food is the sine qua non for every soldier; whether on, or off the front. Secondly, the forces grow and flourish on preserving and following their tradition on every occasion, which bonds both serving and the retired, as "one extended family".
Thus, the tradition of every branch of the military follows "collective revelry" where a commanding officer or the commandant's guests have always been part of a well-established tradition irrespective of whether it's peace or wartime or on sea or high land, desert or marshy and swampy terrain.
We need not go far. January 15, October 08, and December 04 are celebrated for being special in the life of the Army, Air Force, and the Navy, where every rank is part and parcel of "dine, dance, gulp, and celebrate". Where top VVIPs come and grace the occasion, mix and mingle with soldiers, civilians, foreign diplomats and the media. Transports are deployed for retired chiefs; their boarding and lodging are taken care of. "Outsider civilians", too, make merry. All constituting part of the hospitality of the armed forces and it's the privilege of the General, Air Chief Marshal, and the Admiral to give his stamp of approval to the guest list. It's ethos, ethics and tradition all the way.
When 64 officers from the National Defence College went for "naval tour" and were part of the high sea "live exercise", western officers were not allowed on-board Soviet Kashin (Indian Rajput) class destroyer in accordance with defence "protocol" of the 1980s. Instead, they were aboard two of the Indian made Leander class frigates. Nevertheless, all officers of the National Defence College were "guests", yet, all "on official duty". All on board had food, fun, frolic. That was, and still is, the established procedure of the tradition followed by the military in which civilians and the uniformed men work in tandem and harmony.
Thus, when a Prime Minister goes to a front-line fighting ship, or a President goes for a "sortie" in Sukhoi-30 MKI fighter from/in Indian Air Force base Lohegaon, Pune; both, the Prime Minister and the President of India are on "official voyage" and "official flight tour" and under no stretch of imagination can be termed anything to the contrary. When a Defence Minister goes to 20,000' (high altitude) Saltoro ridge of Siachen glacier (for two days) with Christmas cake, to be shared with generals and soldiers, no Indian, in his/her senses should term it as "pleasure" or "personal enjoyment trip". The armed force's officers and men are simply doing their duty; respecting, honouring and saluting the Prime Minister, President and Defence Minister of India.
Similarly, when Nathu la (13,600') ridge in Sikkim, or Bomdi la or Se la (in Kameng, Arunachal) is visited by Defence Minister or the defence ministry officials and gala party follows and "bara khana" (feast of gormandiser's delight) organised, it cannot be termed as wasteful expenditure and hence ordered to be stopped.
Apart from official duty and responsibility, there is another important aspect of the life of armed forces personnel. The annual "day at sea" for the family members and friends of men in uniform is very much a part of the naval tradition. Those uninitiated, and not familiar with armed forces, may ask "why"? "What do the family and friends have to do with 'annual day at sea' at the expense of taxpayers' money"? This sort of puerile mindset doesn't have any rational (or even irrational) answer simply because of ignorance. Sailors' life is one of the toughest and gruelling in the military world. Sailing for long, between two to four months and beyond, on the high sea, cannot be explained unless one has had the taste of it in real (not reel) life. The separation from/of the family members too is doubly anxiety-ridden. Anything can happen in the sea. Hence "annual family day at sea" constitutes an important event in the traditional following of sailor's profession.
One, therefore, is concerned the way non-issues of armed forces have become "live issues" at the time of the election in India. This could inflict irreparable damage on the apolitical and professional institutions which do not see the colour or ideology of politics or polity but remain on 24/7 alert "action station". Armed forces run on ethos, ethics and tradition. Those are sacrosanct and inviolable.
Before concluding, let me state that four months ago, I wrote a piece because the present Chief of Air Staff was humiliated (in unparliamentary language) by a public figure for his (Air Chief's) professional utterances in a media briefing. I am compelled to recall the concluding lines of that article: "Mahabharata was a bitter fight-to-finish civil war between first cousins for kingdom. Such 'situations' have been placed to make a point. That, instead of abusing or accusing a service chief, Indians would do better to fight their political battle with rival politicians and keep the professional military out of 'battle royale' on the eve of elections in India. Please prepare to fight war, not civil war. Why give upper hand to foreign adversary?"
(The authoer is an alumnus of National Defence College and author of China in India. The views expressed are strictly personal)