The politically mandated Agnipath scheme is going through significant birthing problems as it has unfortunately acquired political and emotional overtones. Fortunately, its success, which now rests on the shoulders of the armed forces, is mostly unaffected by political resistance to the envisaged reform in the human resources below the officer level. The armed forces are responsible for three of the four main phases of the Agnipath scheme—selection, initial training, service in the unit, and resettlement.
The resettlement phase is the responsibility of the political leadership. If the demands for resettlement are not satisfactorily met, it could affect the quality of human resources and undermine one of the major objectives of the scheme, which is to induct technically skilled personnel. But the silver lining is that the armed forces can considerably make up for political slip-ups because they are in charge of the first three phases. There should be no doubt, though, that the scheme has thrown up a significant challenge to the varied levels of leadership involved in the different phases.
The enormous unemployment problem should ensure that the sheer numbers of aspirants will not be found wanting. As long as the best are selected, the initial training and the service in the unit are the two phases that would matter for military effectiveness.
Training the Agniveers
One of the major roles of the initial training is to mould the civilian recruit to conform to fundamental military values and ensure the performance of essential military functions. In practical terms, the initial training in the Regimental Centres for the Army and its equivalents in the Navy and Air Force should make them amenable for the smooth integration of the Agniveers with the existing workforce in the units. The idea of promoting their identity as Agniveers is thus anathema to integration. Therefore, any thoughts about giving them distinct identity badges and so on should be shelved.
Imbibing military values and efficiently executing military tasks or duties can be strenuous and a perpetual process both physically and mentally. However, this process is normally well-managed because of experienced instructors treating the new entrants as a collective body.
With the increased inflow of personnel due to shortened service, training capacities would have to be expanded, though slight relief should be available due to shortened tenures of initial training to six months. At the same time, the need would arise to evolve different methodologies that contribute towards making up for the contraction in the training period. The military leadership responsible for initial training has its tasks cut out, and as explained, it would require innovative measures and their effective implementation.
Handling the new ‘divide’
Initial training will be overshadowed by the ‘service in unit‘ phase.
This phase is where the contribution of the Agniveers would matter to the military effectiveness of the unit they serve in. Military units of the three Services are of different types, serve varied military purposes, and provide the foundation of military power. The combat capability of a unit is founded on its human potential. The essence of its strength is its unity of purpose and teamwork at various levels to achieve its common objectives or goals. In terms of a broad social structure, the Agnipath scheme may possibly divide the units into two broad identity-based classes—Agniveers and regular soldiers. One of the major leadership challenges might well turn out to be about handling this new ‘divide’.
Given the existing conditions, in terms of motivation, the two classes are bound to have different drivers. The main motivation of most Agniveers would be securing permanence by being among the 25 per cent who are retained. This is because of its organic connection to the larger national unemployment problem. The desire to be retained also underscores the pressing need for an open and equitable selection system that would deliver results while withstanding legal scrutiny.
The parameters of judgement would depend on the type of unit and service requirements. An accountable selection system will have to be instituted. This is a new challenge, and there is the need to ideate the issue and have a robust system in place as early as possible so that the details of the system can be communicated to the Agniveers. It is critical for achieving efficiency in their performance. After four years, those retained would undoubtedly shift their motivational focus to merge with that of the regulars.
Retention system—centralisation vs decentralisation
According to this government press release, the selection for retention will be centralised. Soldierly character and professional qualities will have to be judged and inter-se merit drawn to decide retention. The question is whether a centralised or de-centralised system is best suited. Inputs on character qualities are best derived from the Commanding Officer based on guidelines shaped at the appropriate level, even though it is also subject to human frailties. On the other hand, professional acumen could be subject to a centralised online test. But the problem here is that even Agniveers belonging to a common trade would have served in a diverse milieu. Therefore, it would be difficult to conduct a test that provides a level-playing field to arrive at inter-se merit.
There seems to be no easy way out of the centralisation versus de-centralisation issue. The three Services would have to evolve their own methodologies. In the case of combat and combat support arms of the Army, like the infantry, mechanised infantry, armour, artillery, air defence artillery and engineers, the Commanding Officer should play a major role in deciding retention. This too is imperfect, but could be better than the centralised option.
Centralisation of selection on completion of four years must not disempower the Commanding Officer and weaken the efforts to maximise human potential for military purposes. Whatever is done on the issue, the Commanding Officer must be empowered to deal with it. He and his subordinates have more knowledge of the individuals concerned than a centralised system can possibly have. Any centralised system will rest its opinion on inputs converted into a mathematical formula. But if the number of retention vacancies are sub-allotted to the Commanding Officers, the quality of human judgement of the Commanding Officers, even though imperfect, cannot be surpassed by a centralised system based on machines.
Within units, the new divide could manifest in different forms. Unfortunately, structurally, the divide is permanent. The Commanding Officers have their tasks cut out. It may be a difficult job, but not beyond the range of good leadership. The challenge is to deal with these issues preemptively. The present approach towards centralisation in retention methodology must be reviewed, and either centralisation or de-centralisation or even a mix of both must be adopted. For sure, the input of the Commanding Officer would be crucial.
Role of political leadership
Modernisation cannot go hand in hand with the requirement of rapid turnovers in workforce. In organisational interests that transcend individual benefit, the political leadership could contribute by amending the labour laws to permit Agniveers to serve up to seven years without gratuity and pensionary benefits. The armed forces should decide which trades require more than four years of service. Such steps can be a major contributor to the success of the Agnipath scheme.
I am not optimistic about the political leadership keeping up to the promises of resettlement. The real challenge thrown at the armed forces is to make the scheme a success even when resettlement is not assured. The new divide can be anticipated through imagination rooted in experience. Fortuitously, India’s armed forces have a fairly greater degree of independent agency to deal with issues that may arise.
The plate of the Commanding Officers is nearly always packed with a plethora of issues both mundane and profound. Managing the ‘divide’ towards strengthening effectiveness is an additional challenge. The heat of the Agnipath scheme cannot spare the rank and file either. Such is its scale. Let us hope its success will eventually have a salutary effect on national security.
Lt Gen (Dr) Prakash Menon (retd) is Director, Strategic Studies Programme, Takshashila Institution; former military adviser, National Security Council Secretariat. He tweets @prakashmenon51. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)