Agnipath: Unleashing the path of fire
Consider how much of the burning of India could be avoided if the scheme, dramatic as it is in its sweep, were discussed openly, over a period of time with a variety of stakeholders
In the story of the blind men and the elephant, each touching a different part of the animal and quarrelling over what it is they have just “seen”, the message is that partial knowledge is never good enough to describe the full picture. But Charles West Churchman (1913-2004), the American philosopher and academic who advanced the field of Systems Thinking, wrote once that the story was interesting for a different reason. This was so not as much because of the inaccuracies of the blind men but the role the storyteller gave himself – namely, the ability to see the full picture. “The story is in fact a piece of arrogance. It assumes that a very logically astute wise man can always get on top of a situation, so to speak, and look at the foolishness of people who are incapable of seeing the whole,” Churchman wrote. This arrogance is at the heart of political decision making at the highest level in the India of today, one or more in a chosen set of “wise” men convinced that they see the full picture and are ready to drive monumental change sans any discussion or dialogue. In doing so, they have willy-nilly dismissed the rest of India as blind, incapable or unworthy of consultation. Political parties get to be treated as irrelevant in the political sweepstakes and street battles show up as India burns again and again.
This is how and why India is on the boil, with Covid not yet gone and inflation raging, as protests spread across eight States, as trains and buses are burnt and the Indian State turns out in riot gear to stand against the youth of India. In this battle, the merits or otherwise of the scheme called ‘Agnipath’ are irrelevant in the present time. Even if the scheme was carefully crafted, well studied and meticulously planned, which is suspected if not known to be not the case, the government will now have to fork out concession after concession – which it has already begun doing so that the scheme keeps and does not meet the fate of the farm laws which had to be abrogated. Quelling the anger and protests now will take top priority. What is worse, and even outright dangerous, is that the defence services have been asked to promote and defend the scheme, and to ask the youth not to be among the protestors if they are to be considered for the short-term recruitment on offer. This has the colour of uniformed officers speaking on what essentially is a political problem caused by the political leg of the government. This is probably the first time then that there is a defence voice on political matters. It is true that the scheme is about recruitment in the forces, but its political burdens cannot be missed by anyone, given the violence that has gripped the nation, with the jobs crisis playing in the background.
The protests do not look good. Consider how much of the burning of India could be avoided if the scheme, dramatic as it is in its sweep, were discussed openly, over a period of time with a variety of stakeholders. That would give the government time to judge the mood, prepare the ground and tailor the scheme and then test implement before going the whole hog. In this exercise, many voices who are now against the government could have been speaking for it.
Needless to say, India can be run best only with consultative politics and some amount of give and take. A brute majority in Parliament may be good to have and can enable a government to push through a lot but it cannot be taken as a license to upturn laws, change systems and uproot traditions at whim and will. Moreover, a consultation is not a process of garnering favourable opinion but to build better, to run at the right pace and to cover only as much ground as the nation is prepared to take. The government can nudge but it must equally be willing to be nudged if consensus is to be built and policy is to succeed.
In many parts, India is still a hierarchically-driven nation. Hierarchy is even more prominent in the defence forces. Soldiers hired for the short term will not easily assimilate with the rest of the force, working in full knowledge of the system that they must leave soon. The reality is that the army remains a dream job for millions of Indians because of its image, its system of working, the pride its members take in their uniform and equally significantly, the cover it gives for life. It carries risks but remains a career unmatched by any other organisation. When that potential for a life-long relationship is reduced to a short-term appointment, unknown, unseen and ununderstood consequences can follow.
None of this means we do not need reforms or that the pension bill and the average age of the defence forces must go on rising. But it does mean that changes cannot be forced, with motives that are politically suspect and a narrow shop-keeping agenda that thinks it can fight a potential war on the borders on the cheap. There are other unanswered questions on how six months of training as envisaged under the ‘Agnipath’ programme can prepare soldiers to operate sophisticated systems that the defence services operate, with sophistication only deemed to be growing over time. And how does the discipline, pride and honour sit once the soldier is discharged honourably and is forced to take up less than honourable jobs, like a security durwan for the BJP establishment, as a particularly idiotic and inadvertently frank-talking BJP functionary has offered.
At the heart of the problem is that our economy has been unable to create jobs. There is no real respect, it appears, or even demand across vast swathes of interior India, for private sector employment in the face of the promise of a government job. There are important issues to address on just how much jobs – with sustainable living wage and decent terms and benefits – the private sector has been able to generate. This raises questions on just how much of the private sector is professional in its operation and mature in its capability. This columnist argued earlier that one important aspect of the farm protests was that the nation’s farmers had no trust in the private sector that was being empowered to take over mandis and intervene in the agri system. The same can be said here. This remains one of the biggest failures of all governments. This failing is now sought to be covered with an offer of jobs that are less than jobs – so that youth will have jobs but not keep them. It has the effect of dreams being snatched away from our youth. The offer to absorb 25% of the short-term recruits may breed unhealthy competition. The rest need to look for jobs and will probably begin applying while they are in the short-term commission role, again hindering single-minded devotion to services in their limited time.
The government has said it will push ahead with the ‘Agnipath’ scheme. This means that tensions will continue to brew for some more time, and the one institution that was above it all will get entangled in a fractious debate and worse at exactly the wrong time.
(The writer is a journalist and faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal) (Syndicate: The Billion Press) (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)