In today’s world of instant communications and instant opinions, almost everything that a government does or does not do attracts a point of view.
Debate is healthy, especially in a democracy, as differing opinions are a useful feedback tool for the government of the day to know whether the steps they have taken have met with applause or opprobrium.
The recent press conference of the Chief of Defence Staff, with the three service chiefs flanking him, the announcements made as well as the follow-up seen on Sunday, May 3, have been the subject of heated television debates, articles in print and discussions on the social media.
Most of the views that were expressed, especially that of a former Navy Chief, are antagonistic to this show of support by the armed forces. There is also an article comparing the CDS to Field Marshal “Sam” Manekshaw and quoting the late field marshal on the characteristics of a “yes man”, and how a “yes man” is detrimental to any organisation.
In all this cacophony, the voice of the common man is being drowned out. However, before I come to that, the issue is not about the CDS being a “yes man” or not. The point that must be understood is that the armed forces of any nation should be in sync with the government of the day and should reflect its ethos.
The main role of the armed forces is operational. Nothing can change that, nothing will change that, and nothing can impinge upon that. Early on May 3, the Army lost four personnel, including the commanding officer of a Rashtriya Rifles battalion, in close combat with terrorists.
Such operations will continue, and the Army will continue to defend the country’s interests wherever and whenever called upon to do so.
There is also another role for the armed forces that the nation sees on display on Republic Day and other occasions, that may or may not be seen by the civilian population. It is the ceremonial role the armed forces play when the occasion so demands. The press conference by the CDS and the follow-up actions pertain purely to the ceremonial role of the armed forces. Those who were expecting profound operational pronouncements from the CDS were naturally disappointed.
So also those who expected to hear what the armed forces were doing in fighting the epidemic, perhaps not realising that the armed forces act according to the directions of the government of the day and cannot usurp the responsibilities and duties of other wings of the government. The armed forces are only a backup in such situations and are not to be used in the forefront of this war.
What was conveyed by the CDS was that the armed forces would like to express their solidarity with the Covid warriors and how they would go about doing it. A prosaic pronouncement indeed, but one of huge significance, given what the country is going through today.
Thus, what is being seen is the armed forces’ way of thanking the Covid warriors as the police, medical staff and civil administration are referred to. For over a month now, these people have been in the forefront of this battle against the virus, and yet at the same time ensured no breakdown of law and order as well as made certain the uninterrupted flow of essential goods and services. So, in support of these frontline Covid warriors, the warriors in uniform are expressing their gratitude.
The Army asked its bands to go to the medical colleges and play for the staff there; the Air Force organised flypasts by fixed-wing aircraft and showering of rose petals by helicopters, while the Indian Navy expressed its solidarity by lighting up the ships in harbour. How do these acts impinge upon the operational preparedness of the armed forces?
Financially, too, the flypasts are not “wasteful”, as some would have us believe. They are just a coordinated effort of routine training of pilots that in any case goes on.
There is also the criticism that these acts are reserved for commemorative occasions only. The question that needs to be asked is if an act like lighting up ships is reserved for commemorative occasions, does it imply that it should not be done on other important occasions?
Today we are facing an unprecedented situation in the country, in fact across the world. If such acts of expressing solidarity with those fighting this battle are not important enough, then what is? These acts have captured the imagination of our country. All we need to do is surf the news channels and hear what those at the forefront of this war are saying, not the so-called experts who indulge in government-bashing every other day. The critics have missed the wood for the trees.
Lt. Gen. Gautam Moorthy (Retd) is a former DG Ordnance Services...