A pilot project is usually conducted without much hype to test the waters as a precursor to a big policy change.
Army Vice Chief Lt General BS Raju has said that Agnipath must be deemed a pilot project as the first batch of Agnivers enter the armed forces: “The methodology of recruitment, the percentages of retentions or extensions… if there is a requirement to be tweaked, it will be done in four to five years once we have sufficient data.”
This is exactly why it should be considered a pilot project. “We may not have called it a pilot project but it is clearly work in progress,” General Raju added, indicating that significant changes are anticipated.
General Raju is probably doing some plain speaking while covering up for the staggering incompetence of the political authority which communicated Agnipath as some dramatic initiative – as is the tendency of the regime which equates governance with headline-grabbing events.
If the scheme had been announced as a low-key pilot project, in the terms used by the Vice Chief, angry young men may not have taken to street violence, as they did in several states. Shamefully, after triggering massive damage through incompetent communication motivated by an insatiable craving for headlines, the government is now hiding behind the service chiefs, on whom the entire burden of damage control has fallen.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is a political communicator nonpareil, seems to go into long spells of silence when things go awry.
There are uncanny parallels with the manner in which the farm laws were announced, without discussion, as if some agricultural revolution was being ushered in. After the headline-grabbing announcements came a series of strategic retreats, before the ‘reform’ was put on hold and eventually scrapped. That repeal was motivated by the Uttar Pradesh elections, since farmers mostly belong to the ‘backward’ communities, which the BJP assiduously cultivates.
Similarly, the youth protesting the Agnipath scheme, especially in the Hindi-speaking states, belong to a cohort that the BJP would like to keep on its side. The government was evidently taken aback by the intensity and scale of the protests, which were so spontaneous and widespread that even the Opposition took a while to understand what was happening.
The government, upon seeing the negative response of the youth which had patiently waited for the army recruitments to start after a gap of two years, has already brought in some tweaks to the Agnipath policy. The age limit extended from 21 to 23 is aimed at assuaging those who missed the recruitment during the COVID-19 period. Besides, the army brass is stressing on other sweeteners like a lump sum of Rs 11 lakh upon retirement after four years of service.
Industrialists like Mahindras, Tatas and Ambanis have been brought in to assure that these Agnivers will get appropriate placements after retirement. A prominent Bharatiya Janata Party leader from Madhya Pradesh even assured Agniveers of a security guard’s job in the party office. The BJP leader completely missed the basic point about the prestige and status a recruit gets in securing a regular 17-year job with pension – which is assured for Personnel Below Officer Rank (PBOR).
This psychology is yet to be grasped by the government in its effort to communicate the post retirement opportunities for the jawans.
Another problem highlighted by Rahul Bedi in his article in The Wire is that the government is now desperately trying to communicate that the Agnipath scheme has nothing to do with the savings to be made on the growing pension bill which has touched 22% of the defense expenditure, one of the highest in any modern military establishment. Politically the savings on pension argument will be disastrous for the BJP given its past position on ‘One Rank One Pension’, showing itself to be superior to other political parties on pension commitments to the armed forces.
Prime Minister Modi, it would appear, is equally concerned about the political messaging of Agnifer, especially in the Hindi heartland where the BJP gets most of its Lok Sabha seats.
Modi may be incompetent in implementing policy, but his political instincts cannot be underestimated. For eight years, he has nurtured the political constituency that the would-be Agnivers mostly represent, and one would not be surprised if he monitors this scheme personally and makes appropriate changes even before the 2024 elections.
General Raju rechristening Agnipath as a “deemed pilot project” may have its political uses, after all.
A version of this first article appeared in The India Cable – a subscribers-only newsletter published by The Wire and Galileo Ideas. You can subscribe to The India Cable by clicking here.