For the first time in independent India’s history, the 25-lakh strong ex-servicemen community is preparing hard for a battle it doesn’t want. Instead of closing ranks to fight a common enemy, the retired personnel and their families, who form a solid over 2-crore vote-bank nationwide, have drawn their battle lines clearly on all sides of the nation’s political divide. With just about a month left for the nation to go to polls, the veteran warriors are so divided, they are likely to split their community’s votes among the main political formations—the Congress, the BJP and the AAP.
In the past few elections, a majority of the ex-servicemen have always shown a soft spot for the BJP and its views on strong national security. But the Congress, this time, has unleashed its dole—the ‘One Rank-One Pension’ scheme—to ensure some of the ex-servicemen and their families vote for it during elections.
Only on Thursday, AAP ensured it got a strong candidate in Gul Panag for the lone Chandigarh seat, at present represented by Congress’ former Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal. Gul is the daughter of former Army commander Lt Gen H S Panag, who has served both as the Northern Army Commander in Udhampur and the Central Army Commander in Lucknow.
Lt Gen Panag had joined AAP on February 21. Gul, who had tweeted for six months in favour of BJP’s PM candidate Narendra Modi, joined her dad in the AAP, claiming it was the best alternative now.
Lt Gen Panag, who had serious differences with then Army chief General Deepak Kapoor over postings between 2008 and 2010, claimed he had joined AAP to contribute towards national security and defence personnel welfare.
“I cannot sit in an armchair and keep criticising political parties or only write about shortcomings in the system. I felt it was time to make a difference,” Panag said.
Panag’s pride as a father was quite visible the day AAP announced Gul as its candidate. With Gul Panag on their side, AAP can expect a considerable chunk of the ex-servicemen voters rooting for it in Chandigarh, considering she’s “a fauji kid.”
Lt Gen Panag, a mechanised infantry officer, has had both friends and foes in the Army when he was in service, as he was stickler for rules and a fitness freak who expected the same from others in the force.
But the BJP too has had its own share of ex-servicemen joining it, post Narendra Modi’s huge rally of retired defence personnel in Rewari (Haryana) in September 2013. On March 1, the BJP got a shot in the arm when former Army chief General V K Singh joined the party, calling it the “only nationalist party.”
Along with Singh, a large number of ex-servicemen, among them former Deputy Chief of Army Staff Lt Gen P C Katoch, too joined the BJP. With a large number of retired defence officers backing General V K Singh, who had dragged the UPA government to court while he was in service between April 2010 and May 2012 over his birth date, the BJP can expect his support to boost its prospects of bagging a majority of the ex-servicemen vote at the hustings.
General Singh had in September last shared the stage with Modi during the Rewari rally, claiming it was that of retired defence personnel and not of BJP. Then, he was part of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement and had claimed he would not join any political party.
“BJP is the requirement of the day and a national alternative. At the moment, I think all people, who want good and stable governance that will propel India towards more development, may be looking forward to the BJP,” Singh said, dismissing suggestions that such a large number of ex-servicemen joining politics may actually politicise the armed forces.
Along with General Singh, over 30 other retired Army officers too had joined the BJP, including Lt Gen P Chaudhary and Lt Gen A K Chopra.
If General Singh contests the polls either from Haryana or Rajasthan, he may face another Lieutenant General as his opponent from the AAP—Lt Gen Raj Kadyan, chairman of the Indian Ex-Servicemen League, who was at the forefront of the ‘One Rank-One Pension’ protests by the former defence personnel in 2008-09. Kadyan had wanted the General to resign after the Supreme Court had dismissed the birth date case.
Not to be left behind in the tug-of-war for the defence personnel’s votes, Congress too is wooing the segment, with party VP Rahul Gandhi meeting a section of the community in Chandigarh some weeks ago.