In my thirty-five years in government I have rarely seen an explosive issue being mismanaged as amateurishly as the OROP conundrum has been – and I’ve seen quite a few goof-ups, believe me!
Considering that successive governments have had forty years to consider the issue, one would have expected that they would have prepared a blueprint for their response – the give and take of all negotiations – and defused it long before the almost mutinous situation we have now reached. As someone said – sitting on the fence for too long makes the iron enter your soul (and if the fence breaks other, more substantial things can enter places other than the soul !). This is what has happened to Mr. Modi’s government, and to the Ex-servicemen Movement( ESM) too, for the latter’s over vaunting ambition has messed up matters for it also.
To begin with, both the Congress and Mr. Vajpayee’s government were right in not touching the OROP demand with a barge pole – it’s a financial monstrosity which can, and will, bankrupt the country, has no parallel anywhere in the world, and defies logic. They were dead wrong, however, in not addressing the underlying issues and grievances which confer a semblance of justification in the demand for OROP. These include: anomalies in salaries/scales/promotions as compared to the civil services (of which the IAS is the generally accepted hated face!), not all of which can be justified, though some can; the deep distrust between the military and the political/executive establishment; and most important of all, the plight of the ordinary jawan who retires at 35 with no other future prospect than to become a security guard in some agency, his years of training and fighting skills consigned to the dustbin.
Mr. Modi had a chance to address this Herculean challenge, with his majority and unquestioned hold over both the party and the government. But he proved that at the end of the day he is just a politician, after all – better packaged and clothed, certainly, but with the fatal weakness of all politicians viz. – open your mouth first and think later. His thrice reiterated promise of sanctioning OROP immediately – on a battlefield, on an aircraft carrier and at the Red Fort – put the fat in the fire which has become a conflagration now. He forgot the cardinal truth which all politicians would do well to remember, one enunciated by Mario Cumo many years ago – “You can campaign in poetry but you have to govern in prose.” The tragedy with Mr. Modi is that he didn’t have to open his mouth at all because the campaigning was long over when he did so!
As I had suggested in an earlier blog Mr. Modi should have ignored the OROP demand and done an outflanking manoeuvre by tackling the underlying issues. He should have asked himself the following questions:
- Why is it that OROP has been allowed to only the elite few in the Apex scale? Since this is the main heartburn its abolition should have been considered seriously across the board, including Judges, CVC, CAG, UPSC Chairman, Cabinet Secretary, three and four star Generals and other entitled bureaucrats.
- How do we compensate army officers for their restricted promotions due to the pyramidal structure of the armed forces? Why not allow some form of NFU (‘non-functional-upgradation’) to them also, that does not interfere with the chain of command – say, allow the next higher scale after a specified number of years even if it is not a promotion to that post ? This would have ensured that a Colonel, for example, retired in a Brigadier’s scale even if he could not be promoted to that post, with all the ensuing pensionary benefits of the higher scale.
- Is it not a gross injustice, and a waste of a valuable national resource, to retire highly trained and disciplined soldiers at the age of 35? Why can we not absorb them against the 50000 odd vacancies in the para military forces every year, with their pay and seniority protected? There would be self serving opposition from vested interests within the PMFs, naturally, but this can be handled with a mixture of tact and firmness: of what use is an absolute majority in Parliament, after all ? Is it to be used only for the purpose of hiking the allowances of MPs ?
If Mr. Modi (and a suddenly silent Mr. Jaitley) had addressed just these three issues immediately on assuming office the current agitation under the able but inflexible leadership of Major-General Satbir Singh would have been a non-starter. There would have been no raison d’etre for any agitation, because correction of the anomalies listed above would have resolved 90% of the GENUINE grievances of the armed forces, and the assumed grievances should have been dismissed firmly. And all this would have been achieved at a far more bearable cost to the nation, and without creating the anomalous mess we are now saddled with.
The government’s short-sighted and hasty announcement of a truncated OROP last week has satisfied no one. The ESM’s agitation continues, General Satbir Singh draws more TRPs and eyeballs than Sunny Leone (a bright political future undoubtedly awaits him), the ESM has splintered into different factions, making the task of negotiation that much more difficult, civilian employees through their apex body the NCJCM have submitted a memorandum to the 7th Pay Commission demanding OROP for all civil employees, the exchequer is poorer by 20000 crores this financial year and God only knows by how much in the coming years, the distrust between the government and the military has become wider, the armed forces appear to have mounted a disturbing challenge to the government. In an article in the Business Standard today Col ( Retd.) Ajai Shukla has stated that the ESM has “tasted blood” and will not back down. He has predicted that their next demand is already on the anvil – NFU for the military. The bureaucracy is no doubt preparing its own charter, including canteen facilities (termed OROB – One Rate One Bottle !), rank pay, Difficult Posting Allowance, free rations, and what not. Its going to be a hard winter of discontent for Mr. Modi’s government and he has only himself to blame.
Administering the right medicine at the right time is what wise governance is about. What Mr. Modi has done instead by his inept handling of the situation is to convert the HEAP BIG CHIEF into the HEAP BIG SHIT, and it’s about to hit the fan.