Missing The Wood For The Trees
One is reminded of what late American pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick had once said of cynics: “Watch what people are cynical about, and one can often discover what they lack”. Some of our military veterans agitating at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar are behaving like such cynics, and in the process they are not only exposing their hollowness but also sowing seeds of distrust between the civilians and military in the country. This could prove dangerous for the country in the long run in more senses than one. And this is a tragedy for a central government which, in independent India’s history, has been arguably the most sympathetic to the interests of the military.
It may be noted that the veterans were receiving OROP until 1971, the year when the Indira Gandhi government cut down military pension from 70 per cent of the last pay drawn to 50 per cent of the last pay drawn and increased–simultaneously–the pension of the civil servants from 30 per cent of the last pay to 50 per cent. Since then, it has so happened that every central government has downgraded the military in pay, perks and status, compared to the civilian bureaucrats. One such principle has been the “non-functional upgradation” (NFU) for the bureaucracy. The NFU means that when an Indian Administrative Service or Indian Foreign Service officer (the topmost civil service in the country) is promoted to a certain rank (say joint secretary), all his or her batch mates from Group ‘A’ central services automatically start drawing the pay scale of joint secretary two years after his or her promotion. This continues all the way up the line. The same does not apply to the military, which is a highly pyramidical structure, with 60 per cent retiring by 40 years of age, another 20 per cent retiring at the age of 54, 19 per cent retiring at the age of 60 and one per cent (those who become Chiefs of their respective services) getting additional two years. In contrast, 99.9 per cent civilian bureaucrats retire at the age of 60 only.
Of course, it is a huge myth that the OROP did not exist at all in our armed forces and that OROP existed for all civilians. At present, the OROP is there for all those, whether in civil service or in the military, who reach their super-time scales (the basic of Rs. 80000 per month and above—secretary rank in civil service, Lt. Generals and their equivalents in commander ranks in the military) do get the OROP after their retirement. But then given the fact that most in the military retire much earlier than 60 years of age, the OROP demand may be considered legitimate, particularly when it was abruptly ended by the then Congress government, that too after the military gave the country a splendid victory in the 1971 war. Since then, the veterans have been fighting for this injustice to be rectified. They have been demanding that the Armed Forces personnel retiring in the same rank with the same length of service, regardless of their date of retirement, must get the same amount of pension and that future enhancements in the rates of pension should be automatically passed on to the past pensioners.
On September 5, the Modi government acceded to the demand of the veterans by saying that the benefit will be given with effect from 1st July, 2014, fixed on the basis of the calendar year 2013. Arrears will be paid in four half-yearly installments. All widows, including war widows, will be paid arrears in one installment. The pension will be re-fixed for all pensioners retiring in the same rank and with the same length of service as the average of minimum and maximum pension in 2013. Those drawing pensions above the average will be protected. The government also decided that the gap between the rate of pension of current pensioners and past pensioners will be bridged every 5 years.
When defence minister Manohar Parrikar announced the OROP scheme on September 5, there was a little confusion over whether personnel who retire voluntarily will be covered under the OROP scheme. But subsequently, both the Prime Minister and defence minister clarified separately that everyone who retires early (because of injury, illness, lack of further promotions or family compulsion after serving the mandatory tenure–15 years for jawans, 20 years for officers) will get benefit of OROP.
Although the veterans have been demanding equalization of pension every year, the government has decided to undertake the revision every five years. This was actually a compromise between the demands of the veterans and the present system of pay revisions for all the government servants every 10th year. It is said that this compromise is not for the monetary implications (which will not be much) but for administrative difficulties. Revising every year will prove very cumbersome and complicated.
Yes, there are still some little irritants—the membership and duration of a committee that will look into possible anomalies and the frequency of the revisions of the pensions. But these are not the issues over which you will continue to issue threats to the government and politicise the movement by planning a rally in the poll-bound Bihar. But that is precisely what a section of the veterans is doing at Jantar Mantar, though the majority of the veterans, it seems, has accepted the government’s decision. It really gives an impression that anti-national elements have taken over the movement. As it is, a story doing the rounds is how “ a retired Group Captain wrote a very seditious email asking the Indian soldiers serving on the front why are they dying for ‘this country’ and asked a retired Major General at Jantar Mantar to give it wide publicity. Accordingly this email was sent to foreign missions including Pakistani High Commission. Pakistani front line troops taunted the Indian soldiers with copies of this email. The Major General concerned has been now invited to visit California to accept a $3 million donation by an NGO located there for his ‘outstanding’ leadership of OROP movement. That NGO is owned by a person named Iftikhar Chaudhri who is of Pakistani origin”.
It may be noted that it is the Modi government that implemented its poll promise within 15 months of coming into office of implementing the OROP, something the agitationists have not appreciated enough, particularly when the Congress party is sparing no opportunity to boast that the UPA government was the one which had approved of the scheme. Here, one may quote Independent Rajya Sabha MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar, a parliamentarian who has been at the forefront for the OROP demand.
He said the other day, “The announcement of One Rank, One Pension (OROP) by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar today is the culmination of 40 years of wait by the Veterans and Widows. It is our country’s thanksgiving to them for decades of service and sacrifice. This decision today makes OROP the biggest and most significant welfare measure for veterans in Post-Independent India by any Government and for that I thank Prime Minister Modi, Defence Minister Parrikar and Finance Minister Jaitley and the Government for the fulfilling this important promise. For me personally today’s announcement marks 9 years of struggle and perseverance on OROP—starting with the dark days of proud veterans giving up their medals in 2006. OROP was one of the first issues I took up after I joined active politics—and expectedly today is a big day for me personally and for my time in public service. Apart from raising it repeatedly in Parliament and media to the point that I was even called “OROP Rajeev” by many political leaders. I have also had the honor of sitting with veterans in many protests in Bengaluru and Delhi, including at Jantar Mantar”.
Take another gentleman, Bhagat Singh Koshyari, former Uttarakhand Chief Minister. The very definition of the OROP was devised by a parliamentary committee that was headed by this gentleman in 2011. And what does he say about the ongoing agitation?
“Maybe some in the agitation are thinking just because the government is listening to them they should squeeze out as much as possible. Greed may be playing a part. I can’t rule out that there may be political motivations to this issue as well. After all a party has ruled for six decades almost and we didn’t see such things and this government is barely a year old and you are upping the ante in this form!” Koshyari laments. According to him, the government had walked more than ‘99 per cent’ on its promise. “Need for showing flexibility and open mindedness is now for the protesters. A great soldier always knows that sometimes he may have to retreat to get to his main goal,” he said.
As it is, by conceding to the OROP demand, the Modi government will pay out Rs 18,000-22,000 crore, at least. All told, the fact remains that manpower costs in the Indian military are already massive. So much so that in the Defence budget of 2014-15, the government was forced to shift, not once but twice, money marked for the capital expenditure to the revenue side that meets the salaries, pensions and other day-to-day expenses. First time in January 2014, it was Rs 7,870 crore and second time soon after an additional sum of Rs. Rs 13,000 crore was diverted from the capital side.
Specifically talking of defence pensions, the bill is rising high with every passing year. At Rs 1,670 crore, it was 6.8 per cent of the defence budget in 1981–82. In 2015-16, it has risen to Rs 54,500 crore, 16.5 per cent of the budget. In fact, according to the latest estimate, the pension budget, which was Rs 44,475 crore in the last financial year, rose by more than Rs 10,000 crore or 20 per cent this year. This rise in pension within one year is said to be much higher, compared to similar rises in the non-military sectors. And now that the Seventh Pay Commission award is due, the defence pension will go further up by several thousand crores. Studies show that for every Indian soldier, there are 1:7 defence pensioners. And when 70,000 personnel retire from the services every year to join the ranks of the pensioners— 2.6 million pensioners and 60,000 widows at the moment—it is understandable why the OROP (same pension for the same rank with same years of service) is a biting proposition.
And yet, the Modi government has conceded the OROP demand, something the agitating veterans have failed to appreciate. In contrast, see the UPA government led by Dr. Manmohan Singh’s record. Based on the Koshyari Committee’s report, the government arrived at a figure of Rs 1300 crore required to pay the arrears for OROP in 2011-12. In 2013-14, the government enhanced the amount to Rs 1573 crore. P. Chidambaram, the then finance minister, in his interim budget speech on 17 February 2014, granted a measly Rs 500 crore (based on the estimate of Rs 1573 crore) for the year 2014-15. No wonder why defence analyst Nitin Gokhale says, “Clearly, the UPA government and especially its long-serving Defence Minister AK Antony had not done due diligence on the issue. It was only on the eve of the 2014 general elections that the UPA tried to make half-hearted attempt to woo the veterans. Therefore for Mr Antony to now say, ‘we accepted the principle of OROP and NDA is only implementing it,’ is nothing short of perfidy. How casual the UPA was on the emotive issue is evident from the fact that it calculated the amount to be only in the range of Rs 1,000 to 1500 crore. A four-year long agitation in which veterans returned their hard earned gallantry awards and medals to the President by marching to the Rashtrapati Bhavan every week between 2008 and 2012 had failed to elicit any positive response from the heartless UPA.”
As I write this, there is news that the veterans of the paramilitary forces have threatened to demand for the similar OROP. The military veterans cannot simply dismiss their demand just by saying that the paramilitary personnel work up to 60 years and do not need special OROP provisions. But then, a paramilitary officer rings me to say that if that is the case, then those military personnel now getting the OROP must be deprived of the other facilities that they get in the form of grants of land at concessionary rates by the state governments, jobs in the state governments after retirement and life-long facilities from the military canteens.
In any case, OROP issue is now settled, though it must be pointed out that it is not the ideal solution. Because, with the bulk of the budget being spent on the manpower, the Indian military simply does not have enough resources to purchase or build sophisticated but vital arms and ammunition to win wars. One ideal solution is to ensure that who have to leave the service at a relatively young age should be absorbed in paramilitary or other government jobs. But there is another measure which is not spoken much about. Maybe this will sound unpopular, but the bitter truth is that the Indian military just cannot afford to have such a huge manpower; it must be trimmed.
In the last 20 years, all major armed forces of the world have made deep cuts in manpower. Way back in 2003, China decided to trim down its then 2.5 million-strong force. In 2012, Great Britain announced a 20 per cent cut, reducing its strength of the Army to 82,000 combatants by the end of the decade. Under President Vladimir Putin, a once-moribund Russian military has been turning into a lean and quick-strike force. Now-a-days, Russian soldiers fight out of brigades, not large divisions. Similarly, the United States has decided to have smaller and leaner armed forces, given the financial constraints that the country is facing right now. The Pentagon has been asked to massively cut its budget running into several hundred billion dollars, and this, in turn, has forced the Department of Defence to come out with a new strategic review document that would shape its defence policy with smaller and leaner forces for the years to come.
Significantly, the countries that I have mentioned above happen to be the world’s four foremost military powers, though not in the same order. Should India, another elite military power of the world avoid the trend of having a leaner and meaner force? No. As it is, Indian Army is the second largest in the World with 38000 officers and 11.38 lakh soldiers. A detailed review, both in terms of manpower as well as infrastructure, to ensure a cost-effective and leaner Army is therefore overdue.
It must be mentioned that a leaner Army does not mean a weaker Army. The reduced manpower will leave more resources for the capital expenditure so as to have new technologies and smarter systems such as ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) and unmanned systems, in space and, in particular, in cyberspace capabilities. With better hardware, the Army can be more agile, flexible, lethal, innovative and creative. Similarly, restructuring the Army does not mean weakening it. There are no reasons why nonessential functions such as military farms and Army postal service cannot be outsourced. There are no reasons why medical, intelligence, pay& accts and supplies personnel in our three Services should not be merged. There are no reasons why we should not induct more short service recruits (say 5 years), thus reducing the pension bill. All this will make our armed forces stronger, not otherwise.
But that as it may, it is difficult to imagine that the hardliner OROP protestors will think of the long term interests of the Indian military and Indian security, utterly greedy as they have become for few thousand bucks here and there. The way they are hell bent on politicising the issue will lead to fundamental changes in the relationship between the Indian state and military as an institution, a point that seems to have been overlooked.
Let it be noted that India has been one few of decolonised countries where there have been neither military coups nor distinct domination of the military over the politics. And it is not a mean achievement, compared to what we have seen in newly independent countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, including those such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Myanmar in our immediate neighbourhood.
In fact, controlling the military has been one of the biggest challenges for all the post-colonial democracies. There are many factors why India has not been military-dominated, but two of them are particularly noteworthy. One of course, is the democratic nature of our freedom struggle and deep commitment to democracy by India’s political leaders, cutting across parties and regions, soon after independence. Secondly, the Indian armed forces have been thoroughly heterogeneous in the sense that the composition of the forces has been from not only all the regions of a vast country but also representative of all classes, castes and ethnicities. Invariably military coups or dominations take place in those countries where the armed forces come from a dominant community, class or the region. For example, in Pakistan, the Army has an overwhelmingly dominant representation of about 70 per cent from Punjab, its largest state.
In contrast, the Indian military, over time, has internalised the idea of civilian control and its professional ethos prides itself of being ‘apolitical’. This phenomenon can be best described in terms what American political scientist Samuel P Huntington had described in his 1957 classic “The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations”:the “theory of objective civilian control”, according to which, the optimal means of asserting control over the armed forces is to professionalise them. This is in contrast to “subjective control”, which involves placing legal and institutional restrictions on the military’s autonomy.
According to Huntington, ‘professionalism’ entails a mutually binding relationship between society and its ‘professionals’ (officers). The latter are entrusted with evaluating the security of the state and providing expert advice to its leaders, who, in turn, must afford a measure of deference to their professional expertise and institutions, without usurping, for instance, the military hierarchy such as “appointing a lieutenant to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff”. Huntington argued that allowing military professionals autonomy within their own realm minimised the danger of military intervention in politics by “rendering them politically sterile and neutral” and “at the same time, ensuring that a professional officer corps carries out ‘the wishes of any civilian group which secures legitimate authority within the state’”. On the other hand, “the subjective control” presupposes “military participation in politics”, with the society or the state moulding the military in its own image either by transplanting civilian elites into the military or by promoting senior military officers on the basis of their political beliefs. Huntington described how the two ideologies—fascism and Marxism—based on authoritarianism resulted in “subjective control”, which, in turn, could boomerang in military backlash and coups.
In the specific context of India, there are scholars who cite traces of “subjective control” during the India-China war in 1962 and fight against the LTTE in 1987-90. There are also the unhealthy practices of neglecting the military inputs in determining strategic goals and over-influence of the bureaucrats in the Ministry of Defence. So much so that the late strategic guru K. Subrahmanyam wrote, “This directly translates into a system where politicians enjoy power without any responsibility, bureaucrats wield power without any accountability and the military assumes responsibility without any direction”. In fact, these legitimate grievances of the military have been things which I have always supported. There are simply no reasons why India cannot have an integrated Ministry of Defence. And there is every reason why India, as is the case in other developed democracies, should have a five—star Chief of Defence Services.
However, despite these aberrations, Indian military, by and large, fits into Huntington’s framework of objective control. The political class in the country has rarely intervened in purely military matters. And the military has hardly threatened the civilian leadership on any issue. Broadly, both have developed a healthy system of negotiations and bargaining on most of the issues, including those relating to the salaries and pensions. Unfortunately, this delicate balance – seen under “objective control”—seems to have been broken by the current manner of agitation over the OROP. And here three aspects of the agitation are really worrisome.
First, the agitationists’ main arguments that armed forces are unique, that their services to the country are incomparable and that and they must get the superior treatment compared to other services are essentially fascist in nature. Because of the nature of their work, they need “special treatment” and “special incentives”. I have no problem with that. But when they openly say they are “superior” to others, the demand becomes dangerous. They are not in a mood to listen to any voices towards compromise and rationality.
Secondly, most of the OROP agitators seem to be hailing from four to five states, thus negating the principle of heterogeneity in the composition of Indian armed forces. Thirdly, there are distinct political overtones in their demands—see the way they are trying to lampoon some ministers and bureaucrats and the way some political leaders are blindly but dangerously supporting their causes and leaders, without hesitating to be seen publicly with them. Incidentally, some of the agitators had unsuccessfully solicited tickets to contest past elections from various political parties; in fact some of them had even formed special outfits to fight elections.
As pointed out, the Modi government is the most military friendly government in independent India’s history. It is not often highlighted that Modi has two ministerial colleagues who are from the military background (I do not think it ever happened before)—a former Army Chief and a former Colonel. Earlier one had only seen retiring bureaucrats entering the electoral race and becoming ministers. In the last general elections too, a former Home Secretary and a former Commissioner of Police were successful in becoming the ruling party MPs, but Modi broke past pattern by choosing General V K Singh and Col. Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore as members in the Union Council of Ministers.
Under normal circumstances, it is under the Modi government that two long-pending but much needed goals of the military—an integrated Ministry of Defence and a five star Chief of Defence Services—could be easily achieved. But the veterans at Jantar Mantar are virtually taking those two goals out of reach, with each passing day. They are missing the wood for the trees.
By Prakash Nanda