Friday, November 27, 2015

End politics over OROP

by Lt Gen Bhopinder Singh, (Retd), PVSM, AVSM

The curse of the delay is causing divisions within the fraternity with a set of pro-government and anti-government OROP campaigning bodies — the classic ‘divide and rule’ gets the better of the innocence and desperation of the veterans

Even in the most avowed democracies, wars, terrorism, insurgencies and natural calamities ensure the relevance and respect of the defence forces and their veterans. Matters pertaining to military and its veterans are also hot currency, politically. Not surprisingly, the run up to the US presidential elections are witnessing similar emotional pitches with a Democrat Hillary Clinton stating, “Today we are failing to keep faith with our veterans,” and pledging “zero tolerance for the kinds of abuses and delays we have seen”, to a Republican Jeb Bush stating emphatically on his campaign website that, “We don’t have the money is not an acceptable answer when it comes to providing choice and care to veterans. This is a problem of priorities, not funding.”

In India, too, the ruling dispensation was able to punt and cash the electoral cheque of appropriating ultra-nationalistic credentials, by passionately espousing veteran causes and promising to implement “One Rank, One Pension” in a time-bound manner with the exact specificities as passed by Parliament. The subsequent reneging via the concept of electoral jumlas is a “friendly fire” that the Indian soldier was unaware of. Instinctively, the Indian soldier does not have requisite skills or inclination to negotiate, bargain or doublespeak with his own government and seeks reciprocal dignity and time honoured tradition of a “word” given.

Now, the OROP’s avoidable narrative is getting dangerously political. Unlike our neighbours, Indian defence forces have been fiercely apolitical, restrained and bereft of any internal divisions in the rank and file. Today, the continued impasse and the insensitive handling and procrastination is leading to implosive fault lines. Initially, the campaign was studiously apolitical (despite trophy visits by certain Opposition party leaders), absolutely non-mutinous in tonality and phraseology (given the intractable link between the serving and the retired) in the most “officer-like” manner, despite multiple provocations and temptations to be otherwise.

Now, it is showing strains of quasi-unionisation (a definite no-no in military operations), with multiple bodies championing alternative formulas and approaches, each accusing the other of a “political benefactor” — an avoidable outcome of the delay. Similarly, symbolic medal-returning by soldiers gets wrapped up as part of the larger debate on the “politics of returning awards” by the artists and writers, with all its political allusions and import. Now, the Indian soldier is even asked to “prove” his apoliticalness and is getting ticked-off by the first-time Union minister for defence on the “unsoldier-like” conduct of the campaigning veterans (some of whom are war heroes and have given up to 40 years of their lives in the uniform)!

The curse of the delay is causing divisions within the fraternity with a set of pro-government and anti-government OROP campaigning bodies — the classic “divide and rule” gets the better of the innocence and desperation of the veterans, and the politics set inside and outside the movement.

The divide then gets even more dangerous and innovative within — it potentially posits the officers vis-à-vis the other ranks, it divides those retiring at 20 years versus those who serve the full term, it even divides the defence forces with their cousins in the para-military and so on.

For an ecosystem that has survived the curse of the combined apathy of the political classes and civilian bureaucracy by minding their own, in their respective barracks, this unprecedented infusion of politics within the comity of the defence forces is cancerous and sure to impact the efficacy and fine record of the Indian defence forces.

The tragic martyrdom of Col. Santosh Mahadik, who died in an encounter leading his men from the front and placing himself in the line of fire, is a shining example of the institution’s ethos and classless nature. It is such-like spirit that is at risk of getting squandered with overt politicisation and polarisation of a so far watertight outfit.

Key deterrent to rapprochement is one of trust deficit between the stakeholders — the seeds of which were laid by the governments post-Independence, which saw the defence forces as a legacy of the coloniers and a potential challenge to the acceptance of the political classes — thereafter, the task was conveniently accomplished by the willing babudom.

Now, the ghosts of suspicion need to be addressed with a transparent and inclusive approach by the government. Cherry-picking of pro-governmental OROP campaigners is tactically tempting, though strategically disastrous — it politicises the institution and impacts efficacy. An immediate joint committee (with time-bound mandate for resolution) needs to be formulated. This committee can hear out the grievances, facts and clarify the pain points of the OROP movement, directly — the earliest and still the largest body of the OROP campaigners, led by Maj. Gen. Satbir Singh (fighting for the original scope of OROP without any dilution, as passed by Parliament) need to be represented. Given the sensitivity of the case, the Prime Minister himself should hear out the final outcome of the committee report, in person. Given the fractious history, an inclusion of any civil servant in the committee would only vitiate the discussions (more so, after the emotions within the defence forces after the tabling of Seventh Pay Commission and its implications for the forces). Post the agreement, surely the bureaucracy can step in to execute the modalities and conduct business as usual.

The OROP campaigners claim to have done the due diligence of financial calculations and implications (core issue in government’s dishonouring the OROP in toto).

However, addressing the veterans through spokespersons of political parties condescendingly debating on TV or surrogates has only led to the current stalemate. Let the nation know the hard facts and it is possible that the OROP campaigners may have erred in calculations, let that also be clarified factually — but, in an era of multi-thousand “packages” being doled out to politically relevant states, it would be interesting for the government to quote the exact amount of differential monies that it feels it cannot pay for the cause of veterans and the defence forces of India.

The writer is former lieutenant-governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry

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