At a recent political meeting that he addressed in Baghpat, the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime minister-in-waiting - recall the slogan "Abki Baar BJP Sarkar" quickly changed to "Abki Baar Modi Sarkar" the very next day by no less a person than the BJP president himself - spoke of the dishonour heaped on the armed forces by the United Progressive Alliance government.
It did not do anything to avenge the beheading of some of our soldiers, ostensibly by the Pakistani army, or to grant 'One rank one pension' (OROP) until electoral compulsions forced it to do so. There was also a claim that this government had paid scant attention to military preparedness in the face of repeated challenges on and from both sides of its border.
Such statements, when made with the flourish of oratory, elicit some claps; but those more knowledgeable should assess them on the basis of facts rather than electoral theatre.
An accurate barometer for estimating a government's focus on its defence preparedness is the financial allocations that it makes for the maintenance and modernisation of its military. In its first year in office, 1998-99, the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance government allotted Rs 40,000 crore for defence; in its last year, i.e. 2003-04, this figure was just over Rs 65,000 crore (against a demand from the armed forces of Rs 87,000 crore - a shortfall of 27 per cent, almost all of it meant for modernisation), an increase of just over 60 per cent over its five-year tenure.
In comparison, the United Progressive Alliance government spent Rs 77,000 core in 2004-05, its first year in office, an increase of almost 20 per cent over the previous year. In 2009-10, after five years in office, this figure had risen to Rs 1.42 lakh crore, up by nearly 90 per cent over what was spent in its first year. More importantly, while the shortfall between what the military had projected in 1998-99 and what it was allocated was as much as 27 per cent, this difference was less than 7 per cent in 2008-09.
The issue of under-utilisation of allotted money is another indicator of governmental efficiency. By this yardstick, also, the NDA fared poorly, with its defence ministry under-spending its modernisation outlay by over 19 per cent in its last year in office; as against this, the corresponding figure for the UPA in the year just ended, its last year in office, is less than 6 per cent.
Any dispassionate analysis will bring out the far greater emphasis put on military readiness in the last 10 years than in the earlier corresponding period - even though some might argue, with justification, that even this is not enough. It is true that some critical projects have not moved as they should have, such as the MMRCA multi-role fighter aircraft; yet all strategic capability platforms, be it the nuclear submarine leased from Russia or the P8I, C130J and C17 aircraft platforms have been approved and implemented during its tenure.
Add to this the sanctioning of a mountain strike corps for the Army and progress, albeit slow, in building border roads and associated infrastructure, and the diatribe on military preparedness stands exposed as a falsehood, not fact.
This takes us to the belittling of the men of the armed forces. Yes, it is true that some soldiers, ostensibly taken hostage by Pakistan's military, were returned beheaded or with their bodies otherwise mutilated. The other side has denied this vehemently.
There are suggestions that this was more the work of terrorists than of uniformed military men. While the true facts are not in the public domain and can never be, there should be little doubt that Pakistan's armed forces are as professional as our own and the code of conduct that they follow as stringent as that which our military is enjoined to observe, in war as much as in peace.
Even if the worst case is assumed, his advisers should counsel the prime ministerial candidate to leave issues of retribution in the field to those who are actually seized of the situation 24/7. Our army chief has, on more than one occasion, said that no transgression will go un-avenged and we should leave things to him to do what he thinks right and its timing.
It does not help to whip up emotions especially by those aspiring to the highest office, who may be confronted with such scenarios and worse if and when occupying the thorny chair. It is a scary thought that this country could be taken to war without full application of mind; Bangladesh came about not because of some emotional and fiery response by the then prime minister, but by cool and careful calculation backed by adherence to the advice given by her army chief.
Finally, let us look at the OROP issue. This is not a recent demand relevant to the UPA government tenure and has been "under consideration" for decades. In this time, governments of different hues have come and gone - Congress, Janata Party, United Front, NDA, UPA, et al. None of them, until now, were able to accept this request of the ex-servicemen despite the NDA even having it in its manifesto.
The legitimacy of OROP is crystal clear, but all previous governments had been unable to overcome resistance from their civil bureaucracy, as this was the only segment which was opposed, for one reason or another. In this intervening period, various incremental measures were taken to improve pay and pension benefits with the Sixth Pay Commission's recommendations of 2006 making the most significant enhancement in both. Acceptance of the OROP principle required the political leaderships to rise above the bureaucracy - and this they were earlier unable to do.
Now that this has been done, maybe due to electoral compulsion, the credit must surely go to those who took the decision, not to those who shouted about it but did nothing when they had the power to do so.
If one looks at the issue of bringing dishonour to the armed forces, it was the NDA government led by a BJP prime minister which caused the most grievous hurt in 1998 when it dismissed the chief of the navy. That person had differences of opinion with the defence minister regarding promotion of one of his senior officers - but he was, at least, arguing his position through established channels, he had no personal interest at stake, and did not seek legal intervention.
It is ironical that when, fourteen years later, an army chief, on a matter affecting only his own personal interest, showed no hesitation in taking his minister to the Supreme Court, the then government, of UPA, decided not to dismiss him recognising the demoralisation that this could cause in the military. Interestingly, this gentleman is now in the BJP and has been 'honoured' by being given that party's ticket in the forthcoming elections.
The armed forces are, no doubt, citizens of this country and like all others, entitled to their own views and their own vote. They are as much an electoral audience to be canvassed as any other group or person. Yet, politicians must exercise care in treating military preparedness or morale as something legitimate for politicking.
Even if that does lead to some immediate dividend it will, ultimately, be counter-productive. In no election till now, in more than six decades of independence, have the armed forces and their affairs figured on the agenda of electoral politics. We should keep it that way.