Politics, they say blithely, is the art of the possible. That’s because you need to trade off power against ideology, ie, how much ideology you can compromise to possibly stay in power.
Public policy, on the other hand, does not attract such clever shorthand, although it’s atomic to the ‘ideological compromise’ that keeps the politician in power. If I were in a blithe mood, I would say public policy is the art of the probable, not the possible, because its mandate is to effect maximum change at minimum pain, ensuring that the political master keeps a grip on power. So, its success mantra is accommodation, calibration, and inflicting a ‘harsh caress’.
Over years and decades, a politician can hide his compromise behind contrarian rhetoric, belligerently claiming how good the going is, often sloganeering his way out of immediate trouble. And as the crisis builds up, he has the ruthless ability to distract the masses by continuously inciting emotion.
It was circa 2010. India’s fuel crisis had peaked. I remember hosting a television debate, in which the panellists advocated the “two and one paise per day solution”: increase the prices of petrol and diesel by two paise every day.
The successor government of Prime Minister Modi took the baton. In less than a decade, India achieved almost full decontrol of energy prices, without causing a ripple of protest.
Similarly, for Agnipath, could the government not have accommodated, ‘caressed' a harsh change? For example, In Year 1, recruitment under the regular scheme would be 85%, and 15% as Agniveers. In Year 2, recruitment would be 70% under the regular scheme, and 30% as Agniveers, and so on.
Can a Decadal Problem Be Solved in a Day?
Unfortunately, more often than not, the politically ignored crisis becomes chronic, critical, ready to explode and cause widespread damage. That’s when the politician panics, reaching out for a fix, usually a quick one. But his public policy expert cannot employ ‘the great dodge’. Because by then, the toxins may have become deadly over decades of denial and neglect.
Isn’t it ironic that the public policy expert is usually summoned when the pain has become the maximum, when change cannot be delayed or fiddled with anymore, when the edifice is almost ready to collapse? Yet, the expert has to negotiate another lethal conflict. The complicit politician now wants a quick, painless, surgical excision. But this is also when the expert must push back. It would be folly to solve a decadal problem in a day!
I reckon you’ve already guessed what I am driving towards – the big Agniveer showdown. But I will take a quick detour before that to compellingly argue my point. It was circa 2010. India’s fuel crisis had peaked. Over years and decades, politicians had kept a tight leash on petrol prices. It was such a tempting freebie.
The bulk of India’s oil industry was in the public sector, so easily controlled. India imported over 80 per cent of its domestic oil; any volatility in global prices had a terrible knock-on impact on local inflation and household budgets. It was the easiest way to lose votes.
So, rather than expose voters to the unforgiving gyrations of free markets, politicians, of every hue, party and persuasion, had chosen the soft option of keeping prices low and subsidies excruciatingly high.
But that had pushed the fragile bubble of ‘petroleum under recoveries’ precariously close to a violent ‘plop’. It would have devastated the fiscal book, and triggered runaway inflation, perhaps even a sovereign default. The horrible ‘cherry’ on this ‘cake’ was the global financial crisis of 2008, as America’s economy almost melted down. India’s petroleum subsidies crossed a trillion rupees every year, well over a per cent of the GDP. The populist politician had to make way for the pragmatic policymaker.
Slowly, Imperceptibly Is the Way
I remember hosting a television debate in the middle of that crisis, in which the panellists advocated the “two and one paise per day solution”. It was an utterly simple and effective device. Increase the prices of petrol and diesel by two paise every day; at that pace, it may have taken between 12-24 months to hit free-market price parity. And since kerosene was an even more intractable problem, given that it was the staple fuel of India’s poorest, its price could go up by one paise per day. At that rate, it may have taken five years for kerosene to become ‘freely priced’, but so be it.
The argument was simple. Do it slowly, imperceptibly, without shocking consumers. You may not hit your target in one fell swoop, but you would get there safely, “better late than never” (anybody who has driven on India’s winding mountain roads will understand the primaeval power of this cautionary phrase). A decadal problem would get solved in a couple of years, but not in one day. So be it.
I can’t guarantee whether M/s Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram, and Pranab Mukerjee saw that television show or not, but they did come up with a remarkably similar plan, an even slower one. Petrol was immediately decontrolled, diesel was partially freed, kerosene was gingerly confronted, and cooking gas was more confidently addressed. The successor government of Prime Minister Modi took the baton, keeping the same cadence. In less than a decade, India achieved almost full decontrol of energy prices, without causing a ripple of protest.
Why a Five-Year Transition Could've Worked Better
Now here’s a sharp pivot to Agnipath and Agniveers. India has 25 per cent more soldiers than China, but only 25-30 per cent of its naval vessels and combat aircraft. Got it? So, we have no option, we simply have to cut down the number of soldiers, and acquire much more modern, sophisticated hardware along with cyberwar capabilities. Period.
An ultra-decisive government wielded the machete in this crisis. In one fell swoop, it killed the earlier regime and brought in a new one. But could it not have accommodated, calibrated, ‘caressed a harsh change’? Perhaps it could have. Imagine if the switchover had been planned over five years, somewhat like this:
In Year 1, 85% of recruitment under the regular scheme, and 15% as Agniveers; so, all those who had qualified in 2019 but whose recruitment was stalled by the pandemic would get in as regular soldiers, removing the most unfair and ‘angsty’ feature of the scheme. Also, only 27,600 additional regular soldiers (60% of 46,000) would be recruited. Do note that at the end of four years, less than 10,000 Agniveers would ‘retire’; it would be easy to reemploy almost all of them in other agencies, investing great credibility and confidence in Agnipath
In Year 2, 70% under the regular scheme, and 30% as Agniveers; only 20,000 additional regular soldiers would be recruited
In Year 3, 50% under the regular scheme, and 50% as Agniveers; only 13,000 additional regular soldiers would be recruited
I won’t belabour the point by adding granular details for Years 4 and 5, but you get it, right? So, over five years, with only about 80,000 additional regular soldiers getting recruited versus the drop-off-a-cliff Agnipath currently announced, the whole Agniveer transition would have gone through without any protest, angst, or feelings of persecution.