Shifting alliance Is military threat to democracy?

As such the military in a democracy is marked by exceptionalism of what appears from the surface to be a democratic entity subordinate to its democratic overseers. Hence, great care is necessary to cultivate better relations between the armed wing of the government and its civilian head. For the most organizationally superior entity to continually serve under a democracy, an unflinching legitimacy of the government of the day is necessary. One need not go any further than the April 2006 political change to witness the sheer vitality of the legitimacy to rule to the real allegiance of the armed forces.

However, every political change brings with it the shifting alliance of political powers and with it the problem of shoring up legitimacy to rule by new power centres. Typically in the wake of a political change the new rulers face problems to re-create a functioning state structure; promote a singular, national and congealed identity which the diverse groups within which the state can identify with; gain legitimacy to rule by selection through popular participation of citizens; and finally inculcate a system of fair distribution of wealth through the efficient economic activity of the state. All new governments face problems of tackling all these issues at once, and most likely they can not perform all for some time during the transition. Hence, the governments are always on the credit side of legitimacy while in transition.

However, the armed forces also need to be made aware of the changed political culture by establishing unquestioned civilian leadership. While the civilian head may not interfere in the basic organizational structure of the army; it can nevertheless impress upon the army brass to follow newer directives that affect the renewed relationship of the army to the government at the top level. Many countries have adopted different “bridge” of the relationship between the army and the government.

In lesser developed countries with struggling political culture, the army finds itself abandoned by the incessant and often fluid political climate - more acute in the transitional phase, where the shift in the army’s allegiance and the new political set-up are still in the process of being settled. When the army finds itself engulfed by the break down of the political system, its allegiance is in danger of shifting - as already witnessed in Nepal’s political change in April 2006. However, for the army to strike a frontal assault on the political system it is avowed to serve much more chaos than the general breakdown of the political culture occurs. Although Nepal is passing through a difficult transition, it has not witnessed a general chaos where the governing party is bereft of a popular mandate to rule. This does not, however, mean that the government interferes in the organizational set up of the army - unless such a set up remains a direct and immediate threat to the political structure. As there is always a political reason for shifting of the military’s allegiance; the corrective measure to ensure continued allegiance must also be political. However such a measure should be mindful of the exceptionalism of the armed forces within the democratic system.

The change in the armed wing of the government in Nepal has been more complicated by the debate on integration or rehabilitation of the ex-rebel force’s combatant when it is itself in the government. This has created a serious crisis of confidence among all three parties involved: the party in the government; the ex-combatants interred in the camps; and the national army. Added to that is the now brewing row over the promotion and retention of senior generals by the army, whose service the government wants to terminate. This has seriously harmed the prospect of the post-conflict arms management, as the relation between the army and the government has soured further. The army which ought to have been treated with high degree of deference owing to its apolitical exceptionalism has been dragged into a contention of political nature. The sensitive transition phase ought to have been the opportunity for both parties; the army and the government to build trust and confidence.

While the government has the prerogative to seek to reform the army within the ambit of peculiarity of its organization, it (government) nevertheless could have avoided the controversy if it had sought endorsement of all the major political parties and the army itself before it moved to retire the generals. In what has appeared to be a transient government’s decision in haste, it has come to backfire as the retired generals have sought to take the legal course and have the decision withheld by the Supreme Court. This is a very unsavory turn of events that will further complicate the issue of Maoist combatant’s final status-reintegration with the army-and make it even bleaker. Militaries as apolitical entities are not a threat to democracy inherently — they are but for the political reason alone.

Mishra is research visitor, Nuffield College, Oxford University