Monday, February 6, 2023
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With Agnipath, Modi govt’s shock & awe doctrine may have misfired a vital reform, yet again

Modi govt's biggest flaw has been its disinclination to accept limitations of electoral majorities. This ruined land acquisition and farm reform, stalled labour codes.

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The opposition to the Modi government’s ‘Agnipath’ scheme is being led by the articulate community of senior veterans on social and mainstream media, and by India’s dangerously burgeoning population of jobless youth. Especially in the Hindi heartland.

Counterintuitive though it is, we have to also note that these young people understand the nub of the ‘problem’ with Agnipath way better than the senior veterans do.

Most of the veterans are outraged because — among many things that they see as wrong with Agnipath — they think the Modi government is using the armed forces for employment generation.

The young see Agnipath as the opposite. They see it as an armed forces jobs destroyer, not generator. How, we will explain now. And why the very reason they are primarily angry makes a scheme like Agnipath good, we will explain as this argument unfolds.

First, the jobless young. They understand better not only because they know their politics better than venerable, well-meaning seniors with decades in uniform. They do as they come from the hyper-politicised and polarised heartland. They also know the hopelessness of the job market.

They see the absence of opportunity where they live and feel their own lack of skills needed for jobs in distant, booming growth zones. A government appointment whether in the railways, state government, police, anywhere is the only lifetime guarantee of a safe, well-paying job. The armed forces are by some distance the best.

We must not judge them because they “look like lumpen”, burn trains and battle with police. They are every bit as virtuous and deserving of our understanding as the millions of the best-educated who slog year after year paying enormous sums financing the booming ‘competition academy’ industry for those few UPSC jobs.

For the less resourceful or educated, for mere matriculates, an Army recruitment rally means the same thing as the big UPSC for those whose pictures you see in the full front-page advertisements in leading dailies from Unacademy, Byju’s, Vision IAS etc etc. They prepare just as assiduously for Army recruitment. How, ThePrint reporter Jyoti Yadav told us in this report from the rural heartland.

Also read: Let them eat communalism: Yogi’s poll pitch may work but heartland’s jobless fury endangers India

The less privileged now see Agnipath as their own version of the UPSC being taken away. See it this way. Presume that UPSC exams weren’t held for two years because of Covid while millions prepared in hope. Now you announce that the recruitment for the All India Services will only be for four years and only one-fourth will get the full tenure.

Further, for like-to-like comparison, suppose you also set a new, lower maximum age limit to ensure our civil services remain youthful, and tough luck for those who grew too old in the past two years waiting. By the way, this is precisely why the government has now made its first Agnipath rollback and given this “one-time” maximum age relaxation to 23 years from 21.

Much bigger riots might break out in the same zones of the heartland if UPSC were disrupted like this. And you know what, our middle-/upper middle-class/elite public opinion will be entirely sympathetic to them. Even more than they might have been to the anti-Mandal protests and self-immolations in 1990. The “debates” on prime time and social media (which the Modi government takes much more seriously than people like us) would sound very different from what they do at this point.

I am not supporting the ongoing Agnipath protests or dismissing concerns over these as mindlessly elitist. These are a distressing, dangerous alarm for India. That our demographic dividend is becoming a wasteful disaster with crores of unemployed young seeing a government job as the holy grail.

No government can produce this many jobs. And certainly not in the armed forces, whose balance sheets and budgets are already an HR disaster. However flawed Agnipath might be, our armed forces need radical reform. But we need to understand these angry young people’s concerns.

Senior veterans erred instinctively into seeing this as a job-creating extravaganza exploiting the armed forces. It’s the opposite. Since India hasn’t held any recruitment rallies for more than two years, a “shortfall backlog” of at least 1.3 lakh has built up. It’s a cut of about 10 per cent from the pre-pandemic strength of the armed forces.

Here’s the math. Since only about 45,000 ‘Agniveers’ will be recruited now per year (compared to the usual 60,000 at full-tenure recruitment rallies), and only one-fourth will be retained after four years, this supposed shortfall will only rise. The most elementary calculation shows that at the current rate of 50,000-60,000 retirements each year, by 2030 the armed forces will field about 25 per cent fewer personnel than they did before the Covid break.

This will be a deliberate, substantive downsizing and a desirable outcome fully in tune with the global trend. The US military heavily cut its manpower and is reducing further, diverting dollars to standoff weapons and artificial intelligence. The Chinese PLA has been similarly downsizing. Agnipath can be fine-tuned, reinvented, renamed and relaunched. But something like it is needed.

Contrary to being a wasteful job-generating extravaganza, a tour of duty approach is to cut jobs, wages and pensions. The same money can go into drones, missiles, long-range artillery and electronics and minimising casualties in battles of the future. Even proper assault rifles in a resource-starved military machine.

Also read: He had everything, but Modi missed a brilliant chance to fix the messy Indian military

As respected former Army commander Lt. Gen. H.S. Panag pointed out in this article, an idea like Agnipath is well-intended, necessary and could do with improvements. But it is yet another rude reminder to the Modi government that however overwhelming, electoral popularity doesn’t empower them to enforce shock-and-awe change, no matter how virtuous. They’ve seen it with the now repealed farm laws, stalled labour codes and withdrawn land acquisition bill.

A big change has to be reasoned out, public opinion prepared. People respond to abrupt change in their hundreds of millions, have anonymity and safety in numbers unlike the few hundred fawning ruling party MPs, a few score of ministers or a dozen chief ministers.

Whether it’s land acquisition for job-creating industry and infrastructure, labour and farm reform to unleash new forces of entrepreneurship, or modernising the armed forces, you have to evangelise your ideas to people patiently. Allow a robust debate in public and Parliament instead of dismissing anyone disagreeing as anti-national or bought out by some evil force. It’s an ordinary, normal and inevitable exercise in the same democracy that gifts you extraordinary electoral power.

Finally, we need to look at the geography and politics — or shall we be cheeky and say geopolitics — of these protests. Geography first.

If you map the nearly 45 places where rioting has broken out, there will be a hornet’s nest of sorts in Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bundelkhand, southern Haryana and Rajasthan.

We can safely classify these as India’s primary low-wage migrant labour exporting zones. Check out, for example, where the mostly poorly paid and security guards doing daily double shifts in your neighbourhood come from.

At least so far, this spark mostly hasn’t travelled South barring Secunderabad-Hyderabad. Let’s hope and pray it stays that way. Unlike the heartland, the south-of-Vindhyas states have their birth rates, education levels, investment and job creation much more sorted. It doesn’t mean that Indians there are any less patriotic.

And now the politics. With the farmers’ protests the epicentre was Punjab, the state least impressed with the Modi phenomenon in all of India as repeated elections from 2014 onwards have shown. This current anger comes almost entirely from BJP/NDA-run states, from the very core of the Modi-BJP base. It’s safe to presume that a vast majority of these angry young people are loyal Modi voters.

The lesson is, there is more to democracy than electoral popularity. You need to keep reasoning with your constituents all the time. Especially on why some drastic change they fear might be good for them. People have an immune system that detests and fears sudden change plonked on their heads.

The Modi government’s biggest flaw over these eight years has been its disinclination to accept the limitations of electoral majorities. This has already ruined land acquisition and farm reform and stalled the labour codes, and it will be tragic if the armed forces’ downsizing and modernisation is derailed too.

Also read: How Indian armed forces can defeat Pakistan in less than a week


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