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Opinion | Converting valour to votes is simply not done

“Dedicate the votes to the air force and to jawans”? Did they perform their duty, lay down their lives for someone to ask someone for votes? That sentence meant – who will deny it? – “dedicate your vote to me”. “Not done”, I said to myself. “Simply, simply not done”. Here are brave hearts laying their lives on the line for our country and their daring, their training, their striving, is used to seek votes.

columns Updated: Apr 15, 2019 08:55 IST
Marshal of the Indian Air Force,Arjan Singh,Armed forces
Marshal of the Indian Air Force Arjan Singh DFC would have turned 100 years today(SANJEEV VERMA/HT )

There is such a thing as “Not done”. And such a thing as “Simply not done”.

Who decides that? Who tells us “Don’t! That is simply not done”? Where are the rules for that not-done-ness laid down?

No one, and nowhere.

It is one’s own conscience that tells us what is being contemplated or being done is not ‘on’, wrong, unethical. There are no rules to that sense, no codes to guide us. But there it is, that sense of a line that is not to be crossed, a norm that is not to be flouted.

Similarly, there is such a thing as “rightly done”, “natural”, “right”.

Who has set that rightness ? Where is it laid down that such and such is the right thing to do ?

No one and nowhere.

Except in one’s instinct for doing right. Just as certain migratory birds have an instinct for finding and flying in the right flight path without any leader or guide, no memory of previous journeys, no map.

Respect for one’s seniors is one such natural instinct. And pride in the armed forces is another.

Many years ago, I was among many – at least 50 others – in the tea lounge of New Delhi’s India International Centre. A healthy scepticism is in the air there, always. Both words are important – healthy and scepticism. There is nothing low there, nothing even remotely malign. But no one there is the kind who can be taken for a ride. No one there who can be fooled. Everyone is, to put it in Tamil, ‘vishayam terinjavar’ – or in Hindi , ‘samajhdar’ – aware of things. That 50-something strong gathering was sipping warm beverages and eating snacks, each in her or his own world, when an elderly gentleman entered the lounge. Tall, erect, be-turbaned. Almost everyone recognised him and everyone in one moment, one natural instant, simply stood up – young and once-young, man and woman, academic, activist, writer, artist, homemaker, every single one.

Respect is not taught. It just comes.

Arjan Singh, Marshal of the Indian Air Force, former Chief of our Air Force, one of the heroes of the Indo-Pakistan war of 1965, decorated with the Padma Vibhushan, appointed to diplomatic and public offices, post-retirement but, above all, loved and respected for being the young Wing Commander who on August 15, 1947, as acting group captain, led the first fly-past of RIAF aircraft over the Red Fort in Delhi, had come with his wife, Teji Sigh.

The great man smiled and waved his hand in acknowledgment and then, as anyone else coming in, settled down with his wife for refreshments. And everyone in the lounge sat down too.

Marshal of the Indian Air Force Arjan Singh DFC would have turned 100 years today.

A lovely thing had just happened.

Pride in the armed forces, in the security forces, men and now women as well, who lay their lives on the line for us, for the country, is not taught. It just comes.

And so when I read our prime minister saying at an election rally in Latur, Maharashtra, to first-time voters to dedicate their vote “to the Air Force which carried out the air strikes at Balakot and to those jawans who were martyred in Pulawama”, I was in disbelief.

Dedicate votes to the air force and to jawans? Did they perform their duty, lay down their lives for someone to ask someone for votes? That sentence meant – who will deny it? – dedicate your vote to me.

Not done, I said to myself. Simply, simply not done. Here are bravehearts laying their lives on the line for our country and their daring, their training, their striving, is used to seek votes.

A lal salam to the CPI(M) for taking this up with the Election Commission of India (EC), as a violation of its directive to parties to refrain from invoking the armed forces for seeking votes. If as is only expected of the EC it reproaches the prime minister for this blatant exploitation of a national sentiment, the EC will do itself proud, the Armed Forces a service.

This year is the 20th anniversary of the Kargil war. Also of the general elections to the 13th Lok Sabha. The celebration of gallantry that year was sought by some – not by Prime Minister Vajpayee – to be conflated with the campaign for votes, the nation’s patriotic pulse made to beat to a political tune. Religious organisations rushed to hospitals to give valuable gifts to injured personnel and also – religious books. The Army, noticing this, asked them to desist.

We owe it to the great Marshal of the Air Force today, his centenary day, to say “Sir, it will not happen – converting valour to votes will simply not be done”.

Jai Hind!

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is distinguished professor of history and politics, Ashoka University

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Apr 15, 2019 01:21 IST