All other arguments on the One Rank One Pension (OROP) issue fall by the wayside once put the most important fact on the table. It is that servicemen, retired and serving, have popular opinion with them. Our armed forces are our most loved and respected institution. If you took a vote around the country and the question was whether or not the veterans should be paid what they are asking for, the answer would be a resounding yes. That settles the most important principle of the issue. It also narrows the government's options.
The government now is left with no choice but to implement the OROP promise, whatever the cost, and howsoever disruptive it may now be to others, civilians and paramilitary forces. To hesitate now, or to say the price is too high is a little bit like somebody ordering the best dishes at a restaurant and then, when the bill comes, saying, oh, I never looked at prices on the menu.
The only answer to that is, gentlemen, you should have looked at prices on the menu before ordering. Chances also are that if you then dithered too long, or tried to bargain with the restaurant for a retrospective discount you would be treated rather rudely.
This is precisely what is happening to the NDA government now. Within weeks, the group of Indians that were its strongest — and deeply secular — supporters are now disillusioned and angry. Two of them, an officer and an Other Rank, have started a fast-unto-death. And if an Anna Hazare fasting similarly in the eighth year of the UPA had thrown it completely off-balance, this is precisely what this fast could do to the NDA. This too is taking place in the heart of the capital, is an even more TV friendly event than the last one, and is enormously more popular than Jan Lokpal.
On paper there can be no argument that two officers, each retiring at the same rank, say that of a Naik or a Brigadier, should get the same pension. On that, it seems the government agrees. But what if one retired after serving one year as a brigadier and the other after five, do they still get the same pension? That is complicated as some sections in ex-servicemen community are hazy on it. These veterans think years of service in the rank do not matter. The government argues it must.
The government argues that pension has to be calculated based on a combination of three key factors: rank at retirement, years served in that rank, and total years in military service. Further, that once pensions are fixed at new levels, these should not be increased as salaries in the same ranks increase year after year, except when reviewed and reset by subsequent pay commissions. There is justification in that argument. But they should have made it much earlier, and not promised the moon.
Let me explain the stickiest point: suppose this new set of pensions linked to ranks is fixed now and a Brigadier or a Naik gets a certain amount, say, retiring on September 1 and, as part of this implementation, you bring all those who retired earlier on the same rank to the equal pension level. What will you do when others retire at the same rank in the following months and years, as lakhs would. Will you then continue to revise the earlier retirees' pensions accordingly, and if so, at what frequency?
Again, there is a point, but nobody has tried explaining these issues to the rank and file. The government would want to freeze the new pensions at the settlement arrived at today, and then have subsequent pay commissions look at future revisions. This isn't acceptable to the veterans.
As if this isn't bad enough, a greater complication arises from the fact that even the ex-servicemen are not like a well-organised trade union with a leadership that represents all, and can negotiate formally on their behalf.
Armed forces personnel are classified with great clarity according to rank. And given how hierarchical they are, there is no surprise that most of the leaders talking to the government are retired senior officers.
Let's move now to the next most important fact. Nobody in the BJP can deny that in the run-up to the elections they politicised Indian soldiers as no other party had done in the past. They painted the UPA government as not just weak, but also callous and not soldier-friendly. In the campaign rhetoric they pushed it further by linking nationalism with an unprecedented new militarism. The basic tone of the BJP election campaign was the most hawkish and militaristic ever in our history. Several senior and recently retired soldiers joined the party on the eve of elections, as did many top officers from other national security organisations, intelligence agencies (including the RAW chief), and the IAS (including the Union home secretary).
The campaign was built on national security issues and the propaganda that the previous government had ignored it and ill-treated those responsible for ensuring it, particularly the armed forces. The armed forces voted heavily for the BJP, the veterans became its most vocal supporters and fellow travellers. But now, with the costs of these promises staring them in the face, BJP leaders are hesitating.
They must conclude this now. There is no need to negotiate further. They are the government. They should decide what they think is fairest and what India can afford to pay its finest citizens. Many will be left unhappy, but every pay commission too leaves many unhappy. The government should then go out and explain the details of the new pension norms to the soldiering community. Waffling is a most disastrous approach. And remember, India voted resoundingly for Narendra Modi because he promised a decisive government.
In the UAE on Monday, Modi complained he had inherited a lazy, slothful, indecisive system and was going to change it. He could begin by taking a decision on the OROP issue and take the consequences on the chin. Delay is now allowing resentment to seep into the ranks of serving soldiers.