If you took a vote on the issue of the OROP from among the entire "Sava sau karod ki Team India" as Prime Minister Narendra Modi said so many times in his Independence Day speech, it is unlikely you will find even one Indian saying it should not be given to the armed forces' veterans. But if you asked them what they understand by the OROP, chances are, equally, that very few would know. The problem with the OROP is, it has become like the old idea of "social justice." Everybody wants it delivered, but nobody knows how to do it, or what exactly it means. Further, you also know, that whatever you do, it isn't going to please everybody. In fact, it is going to leave many unhappy.
Police and the NDMC crackdown on the veterans on Friday was a catastrophic image event for the Modi government. In my view - which some may find exaggerated but I do not believe so - is that the humiliation of the veterans at Jantar Mantar, and the images it left behind, is comparable to the UPA's disastrous arrest of Anna Hazare in New Delhi.
You can understand therefore that the prime minister would have been under great pressure to make a spectacular announcement from the Red Fort to close the issue. But good governments do not make policy in response to events and leaders are tested in moments like these. I would say, the speech showed that he took a brave call by not succumbing to that temptation and sticking to the principle without either getting into the details of a complicated issue, or playing to the gallery.
On the veterans' side, many issues are getting mixed up. Pensions is an issue that concerns all ranks, particularly when life expectancy is going up rapidly and most of the soldiers, particularly other ranks, retire early. But, for the former senior officer leading the agitation, the issue has got mixed up with protocol; order of precedence, status vis-à-vis the bureaucrats and political leadership. To that extent, it is getting caught up dangerously in the more sensitive civil-military relations issue.
This is avoidable and both senior veterans, and the government need to work at separating the two. The OROP has been accepted in principle. Complications arise from the vintage, fitment formulae, accounting and equity (vis-à-vis paramilitary forces and other central government services). The BJP erred in the heady days of the 2014 campaign not just to make aggressive promises on this, but also making it a key campaign issue.
Because Modi himself appeared at a large veterans' rally in Rewari, it raised expectations that the new pensions cheques will be in the mail as soon as the BJP's government was sworn in. Veterans did not realise even a new government will have to study the complex issue and take a call. And the BJP erred in politicising the issue without studying it first. That is why there is greater disappointment among the soldiers and embarrassment on the government.
That gives an idea of the pressures Modi was under when he came to speak at Red Fort today. And that is why it is admirable that he held his nerve. I do learn from good sources that the prime minister has understood the deep complications in the OROP issue and is disinclined to be rushed in to it. Unlike a much weaker UPA that got dragged into a self-destructive appeasement/apology cycle on the Jan Lokpal Bill after Anna's disastrous arrest. Now everybody has forgotten Lokpal.
But overall, government's handling of the OROP issue has been terrible so far. There is an agitation by ex-soldiers, there is not just widespread sympathy but even contributions by serving soldiers, civil-military relations are strained, there are behind-the-scenes negotiations on pension norms, cut-off dates, fitments, informal emissaries and mediators. For heaven's sake there isn't a railway strike on again and government and the unions indulging in give-and-take. This is spiralling out of control.
This must end and only Modi can do it now. Instead of negotiations, he has the wherewithal to check wider opinion on the most workable - or the least unworkable, as many would be left unhappy nevertheless - formulation and implement it. If some are still left unhappy and agitating, there will be a scope for persuasion, reasoning, even some firmness and talks. But the solution must come from within the top of the government, not through "negotiations". I know I am saying something that will be seen as radically contrary to popular opinion at this point. But remember we are talking about our most loved fellow Indians, soldiers. We can't be negotiating with them. Do the best you think you should and can, and then remove any doubts that remain. Just don't let this fester.
(This first appeared on the writer's Facebook page.)