Politics

It’s the BJP Which Has Repeatedly Politicised the Concerns of the Armed Forces

The government’s changing stance on some of the concerns of the military, like the implementation of OROP, has fuelled opposition against the saffron party.

Ex-servicemen and their families at a protest to demand the implementation of OROP at Jantar Mantar. Credit: PTI/Files

Ex-servicemen and their families at a protest to demand the implementation of OROP at Jantar Mantar. Credit: PTI/Files

New Delhi: Four decades after the Congress imposed an emergency, creating a temporary police state in India, some of the BJP-led Union government’s actions seem like a throwback to that hated era. In an unprecedented move, the Delhi police on November 2 prevented Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and several other senior opposition leaders from meeting the son of an ex-serviceman, Ram Kishen Grewal, who had committed suicide. The very next day, the Congress scion was detained again at Jantar Mantar, where he had gone to attend a protest in support of army veterans.

The death of Grewal, who killed himself for not being paid his sanctioned pension, has stirred up a political storm in the national capital. As the Delhi police was instructed to detain opposition leaders to stop them from meeting Grewal’s family, the BJP-led government justified the use of force and accused the opposition of politicising a soldier’s death.

Speaking to The Wire, G.V.L. Narasimha Rao of the BJP said: “We believe that it does not behove any responsible leader or any constitutional position holder to arrogate to themselves the right to create public disorder and disobey the advisories of police which has the responsibility to maintain law and order. If people in responsible positions behave in a disorderly and anarchist manner, law enforcement agencies must perform their public duty.”

To an allegation by the opposition that the BJP has indulged in similar protests during the previous regimes, he said: “This kind of politics over death is not something the BJP has ever done.”

However, the opposition attacked the Modi government for ushering in an ‘Emergency-like’ political environment, as did many independent groups and individuals who felt that such police excesses are a direct attack on India’s democratic mindset. While the Congress and other national parties, including the Left, have been criticising the police action, regional parties, alarmed by high-handed police action against the opposition’s attempts to peacefully mobilise support against the government on the concerns of the military, have also been vocal in their attacks.

“Never has something like this happened before, except during the time of Emergency. If you look at the functioning of the government, it is giving explicit signals of moving towards totalitarianism. Any kind of dissent, any kind of difference shall no more be challenged only on television but they will be pushed to the margins by all kinds of mechanisms including clamping down on media houses, detaining political leaders etc,” said Manoj Jha of the Rashtriya Jananta Dal.

Jha added that this may also be a good opportunity for civil society, political parties and media houses to speak up for democratic and constitutional rights. “This is not going to remain as a stand-alone incident in the future. It is an unofficial, undeclared Emergency where people will be given a script by the government. And if you do not stick to it, it will bring you harsh punishment. The opposition is speaking but I believe that the voice has to be much more united. It has to learn to jettison some of the baggage of the past. Or else this regime will go berserk.”

Similarly, Tathagata Satapathy of the Biju Janata Dal said, “This government is gradually veering towards an extreme state of paranoia. The promises made in 2014 were impractical and stank of imbecility. Now that the BJP is in power, it has realised that claiming something and implementing it are two different things. Thus, it is losing self-confidence. Only to remind them, I say, no administration can function under a state of paranoia.”

Another leader who did not wish to be named but belongs to a party in eastern India reiterated that the BJP has perhaps lost its grip. “It has thought that after the ‘surgical strikes’ along the LoC and encounter of SIMI (members), it will be able to project that they are the honchos in dealing with both external and internal threats. It has been trying to build a halo over its head, turning the issues of national security into excuses for its failures in meeting its own promises. Grewal’s death has upset its calculations. And that is why it sounds nervous,” he said.

Throughout the episode, political leaders of different hues registered their protest on social media.

Amidst accusations and counter-accusations, it is important to understand how the government has flip-flopped over the contentious One Rank, One Pension (OROP) issue, the root cause of the present controversy and the alleged non-implementation of which drove Grewal to suicide.

OROP and other concerns of the military: BJP’s half-baked responses

Throughout his election campaign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made it a point to say that if he is voted to power, his immediate priority will be to implement the OROP, a longstanding demand of members of the armed forces. Armed forces personnel demanded a system that ensures a uniform pension for every military official retiring at the same rank with the same length of service, irrespective of their date of retirement. This would mean if an official retired as a colonel ten years before, his pension should be the same as that of a colonel who retires today with the same number of years in service.

However, when the Modi government implemented the scheme in September 2016 after sitting on it for more than a year, army veterans complained that the government has just given them a one-time hike in pension, subject to review every five years, and did not take into account their actual problems. The new system would only exacerbate the problem of inequality, they said.

However, the Modi government has repeatedly claimed that it fulfilled the promise, notwithstanding the grievances of the army veterans, and tried to capitalise on the issue politically. Responding to the grievances of the military veterans, Narasimha Rao said, “They may have some grievances. But 99 % of ex-servicemen are satisfied with the resolution of this 43-year-old vexed problem. And they know how parties like the Congress have betrayed them for all these years whereas this government has already disbursed more than Rs 5500 crores for OROP and has also set up the (Justice (Retd.) L Narasimha ) Reddy committee to examine and suggest resolutions for thorny issues. It is hypocritical for parties which have done nothing for them to make allegations against the BJP. And it is also unreasonable for a section of veterans to put the BJP on the same pedestal as the other parties.”

More recently, the saffron party has also been trying to take political credit for effecting the ‘surgical strikes’ along the LoC, especially in poll-bound states like Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. In speech after speech, Modi has directly and indirectly said that the ‘surgical strikes’ could happen only because he is in power. He even appealed to citizens to donate to the army relief fund and send Diwali wishes to the army.

The BJP has been reaping political benefits by whipping up paranoia around the issues of national security and by simultaneously eulogising the military. Many political observers have said that the sole rhetoric of national security, while an important political concern otherwise, has managed to obfuscate the concerns of ‘roti, kapda and makaan’, which hurts people more.

Again, while the BJP was creating this political frenzy, it has been at the receiving end of flak from the opposition for taking certain controversial administrative decisions, all related to the armed forces. For instance, as the BJP was celebrating the surgical strikes on the ground, the Modi government took a decision to cut disability pensions for injured soldiers.

“If a young soldier with severe injuries – what cold medical jargon terms “100% disability” – from that operation had been invalided out from service, he would have found his monthly pension slashed from Rs 45,200 to just Rs 27,200 – down by Rs 18,000 a month. The team leaders in the “surgical strikes”, majors with ten years of service, have been hit even harder – with pension for 100% disability slashed by over Rs 70,000 a month. Junior commissioned officers, the spine of the army, are also badly affected. Naib subedars with 26 years of service will find their 100% disability pensions slashed by Rs 40,000 a month,” Ajai Shukla wrote in The Wire.

Similarly, in yet another regressive decision, the government downgraded the ranks of military officials in comparison to their civilian counterparts working in the armed forces headquarters. In a circular issued by the defence ministry, the government put “a major-general and equivalent (rear admiral in the navy and air vice marshal in the air force) to a principal director in the AFHQ civil service; a brigadier and equivalent (commodore in the navy and air commodore in the air force) to a director, and a colonel and equivalent (captain in the navy and group captain in the air force) to a joint director in the civil service. So far, a colonel was equated with a director. A brigadier did not have a clearly defined equivalence in the civilian hierarchy but by convention was treated on a par with a deputy director-general. A major general was generally treated as the equivalent of a joint secretary,” a report in the Telegraph said. With military officials protesting this decision, defence minister Manohar Parrikar has promised to resolve the anomalies in equivalence soon.

While the BJP projects itself as the most military-friendly political party, the Modi government has been gradually taking away the existing benefits from the armed forces. The incongruity between the BJP’s political campaign and union government’s actions has led to an environment where the saffron party is constantly being accused of double-speak for its own political gains.

Politicising the soldier’s death

Grewal’s suicide added to the already brewing distrust between the opposition and the government, with the latter accusing its critics of politicising the issue. While opposition leaders were detained for trying to meet Grewal’s family, it is interesting to see how the BJP has responded to the political situation.

On November 2, when the police was trying to prevent opposition leaders from mobilising support against the government, they also allegedly beat up and detained Grewal’s son Jaswant when he tried to join the protest to demand justice for his father.

Statements made by BJP leaders on Grewal’s death were seen by many as insensitive to the soldiers’ plight. For instance, while justifying the police action, former army chief and current minister of state for external affairs V.K. Singh said, “He was a Congress worker who fought the Sarpanch election on a Congress ticket.” He also questioned Grewal’s motive in committing suicide and hinted at it being a political manoeuvre.

Other leaders also claimed that he killed himself over personal issues or because he was mentally ill. In one of his statements, Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar indirectly called Grewal a coward. “Shaheeds (martyrs) are only those who lay down their lives in battle at the border, not ex-servicemen who commit suicide,” Khattar said.

Following this, several political leaders, including Kejriwal, came out in support of Grewal and listed his medals to show that he was a decorated soldier.

The battle between the BJP and the opposition seems likely to continue until the next round of assembly polls. In the midst of all this, most political observers were dismayed at the excessive use of force on dissenting voices. They have called the police action arbitrary and high-handed – akin to a police state. As the media has mostly been critical of the police action, a one-day ban by the government on NDTV India for its coverage of the Pathankot attack came as an added insult to injury. “Clamping down on media is the last resort for an anxious party. As the government attempted to distract public attention from Grewal’s death towards the ban on NDTV, it may mostly backfire, as most people would perceive the extreme step either as revengeful or a continuation of the state’s clampdown on democratic rights,” said a New Delhi-based political analyst.

The government’s plans to capitalise on the emotive issue of national security has definitely suffered a setback because of Grewal’s suicide. Sure, the opposition is trying to corner the BJP on the issue. But as far as ‘politicising the issue’ is concerned, the BJP is not far behind the opposition in doing so. In fact, it is one step ahead in the political blame game.