The Narendra Modi government is discovering that the path of making good on unwise electoral promises is proverbially rocky. Nothing illustrates this better than the one-rank-one-pension (OROP) demand of the armed forces. Unlike previous governments that had adroitly skirted the issue, Mr Modi made an explicit and high-profile promise to veterans that OROP would be implemented if he were voted to power. This commitment, which he clearly had not thought through, undoubtedly played powerfully into the success of his campaign in parts of the North; so he must accept the pressures to implement it more than a year after his accession to power. But he should do it in a manner that the costs are contained as much as possible and the fiscal damage is minimised.
But equally, the tenor of the protests seems to have exceeded the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Hunger strikes by retired officers are surely unbecoming of a service that otherwise prides itself on its discipline. And there is something unseemly in the tacit encouragement they are receiving from veterans who inhabited the senior-most echelons of the armed forces and have no overtly desperate need for higher pensions. Over the past few weeks, both the president and the prime minister have been at the receiving end of letters urging the implementation of OROP. Four well-respected senior chiefs wrote to President Pranab Mukherjee pointing to the disparity between the pensions enjoyed by the civil services and the veterans. This week ten more added their mite with an "open letter" to the prime minister that warned of consequences if the implementation of OROP was delayed.
To be sure, there can be no quarrel with OROP as a concept. After all, the higher civil ranks have been enjoying the privilege for over a decade. The issue revolves on the government's capacity to pay. For a government struggling to control the fiscal deficit and find the money to augment its depleted and dated military hardware, the cost of implementing OROP for 2.25 million veterans and 600,000 veterans' widows is prohibitive. Surely, paying higher pensions cannot be a bigger priority than acquiring the much-needed military hardware. By one calculation, the full grant of OROP would raise the bill for military pensions to Rs 75,000 crore against the Rs 54,500 crore allocated in this year's Budget. This is not far behind the total salary bill of Rs 93,216 crore. The government may be able to afford this at a time when oil prices are low and excise collections have been unexpectedly buoyant.
But committing the government to this level of expenditure in perpetuity is fraught with risks, the implications of which senior military veterans at least must surely be well aware. For one, and given the openly bitter divide between the civil services and the military, granting OROP will have a knock-on effect as other services like the central armed police forces, the Border Security Forces and the Central Reserve Police Force could be making similar demands. Though it is true that Mr Modi's explicit promise has given campaigners a handle, the fact is that pension is not a right and is dependent on what is affordable. It would have been more dignified and responsible for senior military veterans to have waited, at the very least, for the outcome of the Seventh Pay Commission due in a couple of months. Self-serving campaigns hardly go down well with self-proclaimed sticklers for discipline and decorum.