PM Modi in combat uniform: Fancy-dress show or deeper symbolism  

Bharat Bhushan

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has  been donning a military combat uniform every Diwali since 2017— when the Indian Army faced-off with the Chinese Peoples’ Liberation Army at Doklam. This year too he was in army fatigues in Kargil, flanked by serving generals. The honour of Supreme Commander of the Indian armed forces is reserved for the President. Yet no president of India has ever worn an army uniform. Nor has any other prime minister.

There is no legal or constitutional provision for the prime minister to dress up in combat uniform and pretend to be the capo di tutti capi of the Indian armed forces. As the prime minister, he chairs the cabinet of ministers and oversees national security interests – so does he have to wear combat gear to show who is in-charge?

Is the Indian prime minister barred from wearing an army unform by Section 171 of the Indian Penal Code? The Act criminalises the act of “wearing garb or carrying token used by public servant with fraudulent intent” and makes the act punishable “for a term which may extend to three months, or with fine which may extend to two hundred rupees, or with both.” Some observers think not as his intent is not fraudulent and he does not seek to deceive the public by wearing it, as terrorists and other miscreants might.

It could also be argued that it was not even an army uniform because it bore no insignisa of rank. One might say it was no more than a fancy dress, like the uniforms of brass bands at Indian weddings that try to mimic the ceremonial dress of the marching bands of the armed forces. Private security guards used to mimic army and police uniforms till they were banned from doing so by the enactment of the Private Security Agencies (Regulation) Act of 2005. Section 21 of the Act says, “If any private security guard or supervisor wears the uniform of the Army, Air force, Navy or any other armed forces of the Union or Police or any dress having the appearance or bearing any of the distinctive marks of that uniform, he and the proprietor of the private security agency shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year or with fine which may extend to five thousand rupees, or with both.” Shopkeepers in army cantonments have been banned from selling camouflage and combat patterned cloth to civilians by local administrations.

Nevertheless, with all these caveats, by wearing an army uniform look-alike the Prime Minister symbolically erases the institutional firewall between the civilian Executive and the Military. While the two do need to be on the same page for the smooth functioning of civil-military relations there exist institutional mechanisms for doing so – the Defence Planning Committee headed by the National Security Advisor and the office of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) who is Secretary in the Department of Military Affairs in the Ministry of Defence are two such mechanisms in place.

If on the other hand, one were to argue that he like other Indian Prime ministers was simply dressing like the “locals” – wearing a Naga shawl or jacket in Nagaland, a Mundu in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, a Kullu cap when in Himachal Pradesh or a Sikh turban when in Punjab, then is one allowed to ask if the army is being treated as a political constituency?

The world over civilian leaders do not normally wear military uniforms. Kings and monarchs do, because they combine both the civil and military aspects of governance in their Kingdoms. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini did. In recent times, political leaders who wish to convey a strongman image also appear in public wearing military uniforms. Among them are Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Xi Jinping. One wonders whether the sources of  Prime Minister Modi’s fascination with the army uniform are similar.

However, the prime minister’s enchantment with military uniform may have deeper wellsprings than just a political show. Savarkar’s exhortation to Hinduise the polity and militarise Hinduism lives on in the shakha culture of the Rashtriya Sevak Sangh (RSS). Its fantasy that the shakha trainees form some sort of a “reserve army” led RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat to claim in February 2018, “Preparing an army takes six to seven months but we (RSS cadre) can be battle ready in two to three days to go to the front and defend the country.”  One of the early leaders of the RSS, B S Moonje, went to Italy to learn from Mussolini’s cadre schools and helped set up the Bhosla Military School at Nashik in Maharashtra.

It cannot be a mere coincidence that the government has decided to set up 21 Sainik Schools in a year when its education budget, although it crossed the landmark Rs. 1 lakh crore, has been decreasing as a percentage of total expenditure. This is the first tranche of the 100 Sainik Schools that the Ministry of Defence has decided to set up in partnership with NGOs, private schools and state governments. Clearly, neither the graduates of the sainik schools, nor the agniveers emerging from the government’s program of four-year-service in the armed forces can directly enter into military service. A large number will have to enter or rejoin civilian life. The mind-set encouraged by both modes of training could be receptive to right-wing ideology and could add to the strength of its foot-soldiers.

Prime Minister Modi dressing up in combat uniform ritualistically every year, therefore, must not be seen in isolation from the obsession of the RSS with correcting the “historical timidity of Hindus”.