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Political compulsions back in calculus

Agnipath scheme finds itself under scrutiny, but not for professional reasons

Political compulsions back in calculus

Coalition pressure: The JD(U), an ally of the BJP, wants the Agnipath scheme reviewed. ANI

C Uday Bhaskar

Director, Society for Policy Studies

THE defining outcome of the 2024 General Election is that India will be governed by a genuine coalition, wherein the BJP, the single largest party, needs critical support from two allies, the JD(U) and the TDP. Hence, both the form and content of governance in Modi 3.0 will not be similar to that seen in the past decade.

As Modi 3.0 begins, it would be useful if parliamentarians and domain experts are permitted to take an objective view of last decade’s big-ticket changes.

This shift has already come to the fore in the national security-military framework. The JD(U) has stated that a seemingly radical policy unveiled during Modi 2.0, the Agnipath scheme, needs to be reviewed. This scheme pertains to the induction of soldiers (Agniveers) into the military for a four-year period after a six-month training spell, and is a marked departure from the earlier model of pension and related benefits being provided to personnel below officer rank (PBOR) after 15 years of service.

In the run-up to the swearing-in ceremony, senior JD(U) leader KC Tyagi noted, “There is anger among certain sections on the Agnipath scheme. Our party wants those shortcomings removed.” When the scheme was announced in mid-2022, there was considerable consternation in professional circles, for this decision appeared to have been taken by the PMO unilaterally. The military top brass was apparently not apprised of the fine print of the new scheme and nor was there a detailed discussion among parliamentarians.

Gen MM Naravane, who was the Army Chief from December 2019 to April 2022, has provided a valuable insight in his yet-to-be-published memoir about the Agnipath scheme. He notes that while he had mooted the idea of a ‘tour of duty’ pilot scheme to induct soldiers for a short-term tenure, the PMO’s formulation unveiled in 2022 had a sweeping scope and included all three services. The memoir adds: “We, in the Army, were taken by surprise by this turn of events, but for the Navy and the Air Force, it came like a bolt from the blue.”

In keeping with the tenets of a normative democracy, if the political leadership arrives at a policy decision, the military top brass has to comply, and this was the case with Agnipath. In hindsight, it is evident that budgetary considerations (saving on the pension bill) were the principal drivers for Modi 2.0 in pushing the scheme, and the impact on the combat efficiency of the military was a secondary consideration.

While the long-term efficacy and benefits to composite national security of the Agnipath scheme will be apparent after a decade or so, what the JD(U)’s demand has done is to bring political compulsions back into the military calculus. An alliance partner in a coalition government is compelling the BJP to review a policy initiative, but not for professional reasons. It is to assuage the anger and desperation among a large swathe of the youth in Bihar who have been denied what was an opportunity to don the uniform and have the security of a government pension. During the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, Opposition parties led by the Congress and the Samajwadi Party had voiced their reservations about the military recruitment scheme.

It is not a desirable sequence of events, wherein major national security decisions and policies are contested post facto. This could have been avoided if Modi 2.0 had engaged in consultative deliberations on the Agnipath scheme both within Parliament and with the military top brass before announcing it.

There is no denying that the Indian military and the higher defence management lattice are in dire need of a review and re-wiring. During Modi 1.0, there were four defence ministers and the only major decision taken was the grant of OROP (one rank, one pension) in November 2015, and it was welcomed. During his second term (2019-24), PM Modi took a bold and radical decision of creating the post of CDS (Chief of Defence Staff) and creating the DMA (Department of Military Affairs). Five years later, this re-organisation is still a work in progress.

Parliamentary forms of government evolve their own template of governance and policy formulation. In India’s case, each PM — from Nehru onwards — has made the PMO more powerful. But traditionally, deliberations within Parliament and, particularly, within the individual committees have played a valuable role in injecting transparency and allowing for both an objective review and consensus-building.

This is not the preferred model in Modi’s book of governance. Hence, whether it pertains to the Agnipath scheme or the appointment of a retired three-star officer as a four-star CDS, the decisions were taken by the PMO in a peremptory manner. This augurs poorly for the long-term national security and the apolitical ethos of the military. Domestic political considerations and short-term electoral benefits have shaped internal security matters. The Manipur tragedy is a case in point.

Powerful PMs can lurch into grave policy blunders that irreparably degrade national security; the Nehru-Krishna Menon debacle should serve as a warning. It would be highly desirable for national security matters to be deliberated upon by legislators and within committees, and hasty decision-making avoided.

As Modi 3.0 begins, it would be useful if parliamentarians and domain experts are permitted to take an objective view of last decade’s big-ticket changes and an assessment made about the current status of India’s composite military capabilities. The BC Khanduri Parliamentary Committee report of 2017 regarding military inventory gaps could be a good starting point.

Agnipath apart, the focus on atmanirbharta (self-reliance) to reduce imports is much needed. The trigger for such a review must evolve from within the system and not be driven by political compulsions or a major security setback, like the Galwan clash of 2020.

The most urgent task for Modi 3.0 is to appoint a new Army Chief before mid-June. One hopes that politics will not trump the time-tested principles that nurture institutional rectitude and integrity.

#Agnipath #Agniveers #BJP

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