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Agnipath’s branding as a ‘pilot project’ could have its uses for PM Modi

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A pilot project is usually conducted without too much hype to test the waters as a precursor to a big policy change.

Vice Chief of Army, Lieutenant General BS Raju stated that Agnipath should be considered as a pilot project as the first batch of Agniveers enter the armed forces: Recruitment methodology, percentages of retentions or extensions if there is a requirement to tweak it will be done in four to five years once we have enough data.

This is precisely why it should be considered a pilot project. We may not have called it a pilot project, but it is clearly a work in progress, General Raju added, indicating that substantial changes are expected.

General Raju is probably speaking bluntly while covering up the staggering incompetence of the political authority who communicated Agnipath as a dramatic initiative, as well as the regime’s tendency to equate governance with headline events. .

Had the program been advertised as a low-key pilot project, in the words of the vice chief, the angry young men might not have taken part in street violence, as they have in several States. Shamefully, after causing massive damage through incompetent communication driven by an insatiable thirst for headlines, the government is now hiding behind department heads, upon whom the entire burden of damage control rests.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is an outstanding political communicator, seems to go into long periods of silence when things go wrong.

There are uncanny parallels to the way the Farm Bills were announced dramatically, without discussion, as if an agricultural revolution were happening. After the headline-grabbing announcements, there were a series of strategic retreats, before reform was suspended and eventually scrapped. This repeal was prompted by the elections in Uttar Pradesh, since the farmers mostly belong to backward communities, which the BJP cultivates assiduously.

Likewise, the young people protesting against the Agnipath scheme, especially in Hindi-speaking states, belong to a cohort that the BJP would like to keep on its side. The government was obviously surprised by the intensity and scale of the protests, which were so spontaneous and widespread that even the opposition was slow to understand what was happening.

The government, seeing the negative response from the youth who had patiently waited for the start of army recruitment after an interval of two years, has already made some adjustments to the Agnipath policy. The raised age limit from 21 to 23 aims to appease those who missed out on recruiting during the COVID-19 period. Also, the army brass are emphasizing other sweeteners like a lump sum of Rs 11 lakh on retirement after four years of service.

Industrialists like Mahindras, Tatas and Ambanis have been brought in to ensure that these Agniveers will get proper placements after retirement. A prominent leader of Madhya Pravesh’s Bharatiya Janata Party even secured Agniveers a job as a security guard at the party office. The BJP leader has completely missed the fundamental point regarding the prestige and status a recruit gets by getting a regular job for 17 years with a pension which is assured for personnel below the rank of officer (PBOR).

This psychology has yet to be captured by the government in its efforts to communicate post-retirement opportunities for jawans.

Another problem highlighted by Rahul Bedi in his article The Thread is that the government is now desperately trying to make it clear that the Agnipath scheme has nothing to do with saving money from the rising pension bill which has hit 22% of defense spending, one of the highest of any establishment modern military. Politically, the pension savings argument will be disastrous for the BJP given its past stance on “One Rank One Pension”, proving superior to other political parties on pension commitments to the Armed Forces.

Prime Minister Modi, it seems, is also concerned about Agniveer’s political message, especially in the Hindi heartland where the BJP gets most of its Lok Sabha seats.

Modi may be incompetent at implementing policies, but his political instincts cannot be underestimated. For eight years he nurtured the political constituency that would-be agniveers primarily represent, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he personally monitored that agenda and made the appropriate changes even before the 2024 election.

General Raju renaming Agnipath as a reputable pilot project may have its political uses, after all.

A version of this article first appeared in Indian Cable a subscriber-only newsletter published by The Wire and Galileo Ideas. You can subscribe to The India Cable by clicking on here.

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