This week, four retired service chiefs wrote a letter to the President of India, invoking his capacities as Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces and First Citizen to intervene in the ongoing agitation for One Rank One Pension (OROP) by military veterans. The wording in the letter is alarming: they argue that the "denial of OROP is merely the last straw that has exhausted the [veterans'] patience", and though the agitation has "thus far, remained in accordance with the armed forces tradition - peaceful, disciplined and dignified," they warn that "there is every possibility of the situation getting out of hand."
The four former chiefs call on the President to invite the veterans' representatives to discuss the issue before requesting them to discontinue the agitation. More than military modernisation, structural reform or defence strategy, the primary defence issue on the government's table has become one of pay and pensions. Worse, the OROP agitation has brought about an unprecedented politicisation of the armed forces (for the veterans often express what service personnel cannot) the contemporary roots of which can be traced back to the wage bargaining during the Sixth Pay Commission in the United Progressive Alliance era. A situation has thus come to pass where some veterans have threatened to intervene in the upcoming Bihar state Assembly election campaign. They certainly have the right to do so, but it is not a wise thing to do.
It is must be noted that while retired generals and admirals are now asking the President to intervene, few of their counterparts have publicly advised the agitating veterans to resist getting onto the slippery slope of politicisation. Not only is the political route dangerous from a civil-military relations standpoint, it is also counterproductive to the larger cause of the armed forces.
For once veterans descend into the highly contested political space, they will quickly lose the sheen of being above the fray, and risk losing the high public esteem they enjoy. The fortunes of the leaders of the 2010-11 anti-corruption movement should alert them to how swift this process can be: in less than four years, the leaders of the anti-corruption movement went from being seen as heroes to being the usual, contemptible politicians. It is not in the national interest for this to happen to military personnel, and retired generals, admirals and air marshals must urge their colleagues to desist from this path.
I do not intend to revisit the pros and cons of OROP today. Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself has told the veterans that the ball is in his court. There is a former army chief and a retired colonel in his ministry. So the ball is in as good a place as it can be. While we await Mr Modi's decision, what I wish to highlight is the weaknesses in how the armed forces tend to frame their arguments and why they must do it better.
OROP has been projected as an unambiguous issue and its demand based on the logic of comparison of service conditions, retirement age and post-retirement livelihoods of civilian and military personnel. This has been the primary argument of the agitators. Some analysts call it an "emotive issue" for the veterans. As the retired service chiefs' letter and statements by some veterans suggest, a political threat has also been conveyed to the government, after decades of fruitlessly pleading their case.
This is an entirely political argument. Public policy, however, is made on the basis of economic reasoning. Yes, even in India. Of course, as we have seen in the past decade, irresponsible political leaders abandon this, especially when times are good and the treasury is full. However, when there is ambiguity on the macroeconomic front and fiscal space is tight, governments tend to rely more on working out the economics. A good public policy argument must therefore have a sound economic element to it, to support the case if not to make it entirely.
This is where the armed forces fall short. Their response to fiscal counter-arguments - that we might suffer unsustainable fiscal deficits on account of OROP - has been to either brush it off as a triviality or respond with more emotional arguments. Veterans and their supporters have not offered counter-analyses of the fiscal consequences of OROP. It is no good to admit that military people do not understand issues of public finance: they can get help from those who do.
Let me use this instance to make a general point: the armed forces cannot be oblivious to economic considerations in contemporary India, with a more educated citizenry fighting over how public resources must be used. In response to one of my earlier columns - where I argued that moving military facilities outside city centres is a win-win solution - some veterans retorted that the columnist does not understand military matters. Fair enough, if one is discussing matters of military strategy, but rather beside the point if the issue is parade grounds in central business districts.
Indian democracy needs more thoughtful, credible and influential military perspectives to be voiced and heard. Beyond emotion and sentiment, the cold hard logic of defence economics is called for.