The Prime Minister has repeatedly demonstrated highest regard for the country’s soldiers. In an unprecedented gesture, he spent his first Diwali as the PM with them at the icy heights of Siachen. This year, he has initiated a campaign for citizens to send Diwali greetings and messages to the sentinels guarding the far-flung frontiers, and people by the thousands are sending ‘Sandesh2Soldiers’ through social media and via the Narendra Modi app.
He’s once again spending Diwali with troops on the Indo-Tibet border. By putting the soldier at centre-stage of the nation’s consciousness during festival time, he has played the role of a true leader. There is no doubting that such a leader’s intent would be to ensure nothing but the best for his armed forces.
Yet when such gestures are interspersed with frequent instances of government decisions that are viewed as grossly unjust by the very same soldiers, one needs to pause and wonder what’s wrong.
Last month, on a day when the nation including the PM and defence minister were feting the armed forces for surgical strikes across the Line of Control, the ministry of defence issued an order implementing a 7th Pay Commission-recommended cut in the disability pension of soldiers. This, when the concomitant benefit for all other government employees was increased.
The decision just didn’t make sense, and after nationwide outrage, the defence minister ordered a re-examination of the matter. Close on its heels came an order, downgrading military officers of the rank of Maj Gens to Lt Cols vis a vis their civilian counterparts in the ministry. Another outrage and another order to re-examine from the minister followed.
There seems to be a clear disconnect between political intent and its translation into administrative reality on ground, and the reason appears to be bureaucratic intransigence.
One such intent was the implementation of One Rank One Pension (OROP) – an election promise to the military veterans that, from all appearances, the political leadership was keen to fulfil. Yet it took a year and a half and a highly emotive campaign that brought aged veterans onto the streets for months for this to finally happen.
In the case of the 7th Pay Commission too there has been major heartburn about its recommendations regarding the armed forces. In fact, the commission’s award has been implemented for everyone except the forces, because the service chiefs had major reservations about it. A committee is now examining the anomalies pointed out by them.
Political leadership is always dependent on the bureaucracy to convert its intent into action. Unless the political leadership is firmly on top of things, there are a hundred ways in which their decisions can be derailed by the ones who are responsible for carrying them out.
The merry jig that Sir Humphrey Appleby makes Jim Hacker dance in the iconic BBC series ‘Yes Minister’ wasn’t purely a figment of the writer’s imagination. For example, in November 2010, the then defence minister Mr AK Antony had unequivocally informed the Rajya Sabha that it wasn’t feasible to implement OROP.
The minister couldn’t have reached this conclusion on his own, and obviously he was told this by the concerned officials. Yet it became feasible five years later, when push came to shove.
The reason for the repeated embarrassments that the government is having to face in matters relating to benefits for the armed forces is that traditionally, military leadership has been kept at an arm’s length when it comes to deliberating and advising the government before such decisions are taken. A layer of bureaucracy insulates the ministers from the service chiefs, and even the pay commission doesn’t have any representation from the armed forces.
As a result, controversial decisions like reduction in disability pension and downgrading of ranks are made sans inputs from the people affected. When these have to be revisited after military heartburn and public outrage on their announcement, it’s the political leadership that is embarrassed and loses goodwill.
The solution to this is twofold:
Firstly, there needs to be a greater participation by service officers in the decision making process within the ministry of defence. There is no reason why some of the Joint Secretaries and Additional Secretaries in the ministry can’t be uniformed officers of the same rank.
Secondly, there has to be bureaucratic accountability to ensure that the advice is given with due consideration to the outcome. If the government is placed in an embarrassing position because of such advice, heads must roll.
Otherwise the inconsistency between what the leaders say and what the government does will continue to send a wrong ‘Sandesh2Soldiers’.
(The writer is a retired colonel of the Indian army and currently a research fellow at the Ministry of Defence, writing the official history of India’s participation in World War I. He can be reached at @ragarwal. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)