There is an interesting parallel in the electoral culture of the two largest democracies of the world, the rival political parties in both India and the US, try to appropriate more nationalistic credentials by appearing more “martial” (therefore more decisive, assertive, and security concerned than the other). Appearing so necessitates championing the security framework in terms of policies, preparedness and most importantly, the people. Therefore, inclusion and showcasing of the Veterans in the party ranks and their issues in the manifestoes become imperative and highly competitive. In violent times like today, with bloody military deployments both internally and externally (for the US) – posturing a military veteran friendly face is a positive electoral cause that cuts across the other societal divides and arguments.
Given that Hillary Clinton’s own father Hugh Rodham was a Chief Petty Officer in the Navy during the Second World War, she invokes the inseparability of Veteran affairs from that of strengthening the Military and protecting the nation, “I believe in making sure that people who sacrifice for us are given all the care and the benefits and support that they need. And I believe strongly that taking care of our veterans is part of our solemn duty as Americans”. Whereas, Donald Trump of the Republican Party, who benefits from the statistically proven traction of the Veterans towards the Republicans party, makes “Veterans Administrations Reforms” as one of the only seven declared positions on his campaign site. The hullabaloo and fracas of the Veterans expressing indignation at the insults heaped on “one of them” in support of Captain Humayun Khan’s legacy notwithstanding – Veteran affairs is a strikingly powerful and effective symbol of the uber-muscular Trumpism of, “Make America Great”.
The electoral formula works true in India too, the run-up to the 2014 General Elections saw a similar traction amongst the 5 million odd ex-servicemen voters who voted, almost en bloc for the currently ruling dispensation as part of its overarching theme of “India First” – an instinctively ingrained concept that resonates automatically amongst the Veteran fraternity. The essential codes of conduct for the ex-servicemen and the BJP’s promises mirrored the overall intent, approach, and plans. The BJP manifesto explicitly had three points specific to the Veterans – Implement One Rank One Pension, build a war memorial to recognise and honour the gallantry of our soldiers, and appoint Veterans Commission to address the grievances of veterans, including reforming ECHS and re-employment of ex-servicemen. Whereas the Congress manifesto stated that it had fulfilled the long-standing demand of the One Rank One Pension and that it would establish a “National commission for ex-servicemen” to provide an impetus for welfare and opportunities. Presumably, the active wooing and hyper-nationalistic posture adopted by the BJP was more successful in swaying the Veteran votes in its favour.
That the Veterans would get a subsequent rude shock with the apathetic and condescending treatment was something that the essentially apolitical Veteran had not considered. The explicit nature of the promises was soon relegated to disgraceful common homilies like “jumlas”, and a very mercantile approach of bargaining ensued that insisted on “lowering the expectation”, this after an unprecedented protest by Veterans and war heroes on the footpaths of Janpath – the war memorial and the fabled Veterans Commission is also, almost forgotten. The 7th pay commission was the proverbial last nail in the coffin and the Veterans are left ruing their trust reposed in a political formation that projected, appropriated and successfully “banked” the Veteran vote. However, like any other composite formation – the Veterans are not just an emotive showpiece but have emerged as a unique constituency of like-minded people of a sizeable scale and presence. Uniquely, the Veteran fraternity is region agnostic, caste agnostic, and religion agnostic group, and is spread across the country in varied socio-economic classes.
This emerging Veteran bloc has some peculiar trends that emerge from the American experience – for one they vote more than other groups, as 70 percent of the 14 Million Veterans voted in the 2012 presidential elections (civilian voting rate was 61 percent). This made the “American Service Members” account for 17 percent of American votes. The Veterans typically vote for a party that puts the nation before any regional, racial, religious, or societal cause – therefore the logical empathy towards, “India First”, in 2014 General Elections. Lastly, the swing or preference of the Veteran votes is typically seen as a huge endorsement of patriotism, honesty, and efficiency that can swing and sway the civilian votes in favour of any particular political party – hence, the reverse implication of a damaging indictment by the Veteran community will have far reaching consequences for any political party in the future. Equally, efforts to divide and fragment this Veteran community bloc is fraught with risks and damage to the Armed Forces and the nation, as a whole – unfortunately, successful efforts of dividing the OROP agitation, as indeed ignoring the 7th Pay Commission inequities has sadly initiated a sort of a very public wedge of grave political colour and flavor.
President Barack Obama once said that too many people who adorned the nation’s uniform with much aplomb are now struggling on the streets – sentiments that reflect the Indian story too, albeit, by and large, the Obama administration has a successful record of fulfilling most of the campaign promises to the US Veterans. One of the most profound statements made in the bitterly contested American primaries was made by the Democrat Bernie Sanders who said, “If you can’t afford to take care of your veterans, then don’t go to war” – it is deeply reflective of the growing sentiment amongst the Indian Veteran community who are increasingly despaired at the callow and frivolous way the Armed Forces get deployed in the harm’s way for meeting any internal disturbance, natural disaster and societal flare-up’s (which ought to be the reserve and preserve of the political classes, the police forces and the civilian administration – who invariably melt away at the first sight of trouble to let the Armed Forces take charge, while they get busy at increasing their own respective emoluments, pay, and statuses in the system).
Mealy-mouthed platitudes and empty promises have a short shelf life, especially with the soldering fraternity which is not trained to forgive and forget very easily. As JF Kennedy famously said, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them” – this more than anything else separates the soldier/veteran community from their civilian counterparts, as it is the only profession where one knowingly dies for his/her country as they value the nation more than their own lives, and by that extension expect the same from their civilian leadership.
Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh (Retd), is Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. The views expressed are strictly personal.