Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sudden visit to Leh, where Indian soldiers and the Chinese PLA are engaged in a military stand-off, has attracted a lot of criticism, mostly from his political adversaries. Criticism is a vital part of a functioning democracy and in fact is an exercise that should be encouraged because it opens up new ways of looking at things.
Why do heads of states, defence ministers visit the front lines? Is Modi the first PM to visit the front lines? What effect does it have on the men guarding the border, mostly in inhospitable terrains, when they see their PM or President or Defence minister among them?
During the turbulent times of World War II, British PM, Winston Churchill, despite being partially crippled, would frequently go to battle lines, including those areas which were witnessing heavy air-bombardment and interact with soldiers. This action of Churchill, as expected, attracted a lot of criticism from his political adversaries.
In May 2014, US President Barack Obama took a 20 plus hours flight to make an unannounced visit to Bagram, Afghanistan where his men were fighting a difficult battle against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Back home, more than 15 years ago, former defence minister George Fernandes made a record 30 plus visits to the world's highest battle field at Siachen glacier. AK Antony too made his presence felt among the troops in Siachen in 2010. In April 2004, President APJ Abdul Kalam became the first Indian President to visit the Siachen glacier.
So why do these learned men, who have seen the world, experienced human emotions during their long public life, decide to visit difficult terrains and meet their soldiers when they could have stayed back in their offices and read the field reports of what the ground situation is in Bagram, Siachen or Leh?
The answer to this can be best given by the soldiers and commanders who are serving at the borders.
In my several interactions with the men in uniform, I have posed this question to them seeking their views on how does the visit of a political head impact them? Do they like such visits? Or they see it as an unavoidable irritant?
All the men whom I have asked this question have given an identical answer – such visits encourage them to do more.
A colonel (retired) who has served in Siachen, sharing his thoughts, said that a visit by the PM or the President significantly boosts the morale of the force on the ground. “When we see someone like them among us, we feel that we are also ‘wanted’ and ‘important’. Siachen or Leh are inhospitable places, our men live a mundane life and there is no social media or TV to tell you how indebted the citizens are to you. In such a situation, the visit of the PM or a President is like a festival for our men. Most of them come from a very humble background and when they see their PM appreciating their efforts, mixing with them, asking about their well being, it generates a surge of self confidence and patriotism. This kind of exercise needs to be done more frequently. Make our men understand that the country realizes their sacrifices, that’s all they seek”, the Colonel (retired) told me.
Those who have spent their childhood times in boarding schools would remember how happy or sad they would be if their parents would suddenly turn up to meet them or could not turn up despite promising to do so.
“Everyone wants to feel wanted. When we see high ranking men among us, that’s what we feel – that we too are important and we are in the minds of our leaders. These leaders can go without coming to meet us but they do, we too realize it. Such visits make a very positive impact on the minds of a soldier”, a veteran soldier had told me three years ago.
In times of war and war like situations, throughout the history, leaders of nations, across the world, have made it a point to be among their men as they defend the nation's interests..