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Modi's silence on Agnipath is far from the standards he has set

For a political leader with fondness for speaking in the first person, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision not to take ownership of the Agnipath Recruitment Scheme is surprising.

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For a political leader with fondness for speaking in the first person, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision not to take ownership of the Agnipath Recruitment Scheme is surprising.

Every announcement regarding the most significant change in enrolment policy for the armed forces was made, either by the defence minister, Rajnath Singh, other ministers when decisions mattered to their department, or service chiefs and their backup personnel.

Separation of Modi from the decision was unambiguous and the reason for this remains open to speculations because Modi is not the one to miss collecting kudos.

He however, made a general swipe at critics on Sunday June 19, alleging it was the nation’s ‘misfortune’ for schemes with good intent to get mired in partisan politics.

But this was not an instance of the prime minister criticising opposition to the initiative to ostensibly modernise armed forces. More likely, this was a reference to efforts to block his pet Central Vista project by seeking legal intervention.

Divergence in characteristic

There is another noteworthy divergence from the standard characteristic of this government. This regime was ushered in on the back of the image of Modi as a ‘decisive’ leader who was unyielding to pressure and even obdurate to steamroller a decision once taken.

The cult of the prime minister as a resolute leader, who did not buckle under external pressure, was fortified over the past eight years. This however, was dented appreciably when he personally announced the decision to repeal the three farm laws in November 2021.

Previously too, Modi backtracked on the land acquisition issue in 2015 after opposition even within his ideological fraternity.

Despite eventual roll-back, Modi initially remained rigid and firm on his decision, especially on the farm laws against which farmers waged an agitation for more than a year.

Also read: AFSPA: How the clock turned 24 years back in Nagaland

Concessions galore

This time however, this is not the case. Sweeteners were rolled out within a day of the fire singeing several visible objects of state property, railway trains and stations, buses, ambulances, party offices and even police stations.

The concessions made were against the grain of the projection that the Modi government works out even the finer details of plan that has been announced. The Defence minister post-haste approved a proposal to reserve 10% vacancies in his ministry to Agniveers meeting the eligibility criteria, in addition to the existing reservation for ex-servicemen.

In addition, the Home Ministry announced its decision to reserve jobs covering 10% vacancies in Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) and the Assam Rifles. Additionally it provided for three years’ age relaxation beyond the prescribed age limit for recruitment in both the forces. Furthermore, for the first batch, the upper age relaxation was extended to five years.

All these decisions were taken to convey to agitators that government was taking steps to accommodate Agniveers in various government departments after their four-year service. Rajnath Singh also announced that Defence Public Sector Undertakings were advised to make similar amendments to their respective recruitment rules. Necessary age relaxation provision has also been ordered.

Too little too late

These measures could be too late and too little to address innumerable aspirants who were training physically and preparing for the written examinations for two years since recruitment stopped.

Furthermore the threat that those found guilty of protesting would be debarred from the recruitment process rests on weak legal ground and would further increase the anger of job aspirants.

In the past, Modi has, most significantly during demonetisation, been accused of frequently changing goalposts. This time the objective remains unchanged with every minister and officials claiming that the Agnipath scheme is here to stay.

The Centre’s moves are aimed at placating the agitators and to assure them that the Centre and the ruling party was looking at ways to secure their future and ensure job-certainty at the end of the three years for every three of the four persons who will be shown the exit door.

The BJP successfully weathered its biggest challenge till date in the assembly polls in February-March in five states. It secured massive majorities in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, the two states that witnessed considerable unrest over the farm laws. The youth in these states also have a decades-old tradition of seeking enrolment in the armed forces.

Driving on narrow metalled roads in rural hinterlands of these two states besides, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and even Rajasthan, it is common to come across innumerable youngsters running on tracks with the aim of improving speed and stamina in efforts to bettering chances of recruitment in armed forces and CAPFs.

Reasons for worry

It is early to conclude that this current agitation will eventually force the government in rolling back the Agnipath scheme. Given its spontaneous nature and the absence of centralised point of unrest, there are chances that the agitation peters out in some time.

However, the BJP may contain the protests but will find it tough to regain support. There are reasons for the BJP to be worried and this could be one of the factors for the urgency with which the government has moved to announce aforementioned alterations in recruitment rules.

The first problem that confronts the BJP in regard to the armed forces is of its own making. Modi committed to One Rank One Pension (OROP) in September 2013 without any real understanding of the financial commitment he was making. It was formally introduced in 2015.

This resulted in spiralling expenditure on salaries and pensions, upwards of fifty percent of the defence budget, leaving little for equipment and modernisation. Caught in the trap, the government chose to slash the wage and pension bill and modernise the personnel by starting to reduce the average age of the armed forces.

Also read: Agnipath: Hear us before passing orders, Centre tells SC

But the results of this move will take almost a decade to materialise and in the meanwhile the threat to India’s borders shall increase.

Disappointed youths

The BJP’s second and biggest worry is from the demographic group of the protestors. The agitators are all the 18-22 age group, once a core backer of the BJP in the elections in 2014 and 2019. There are early signs that this demographic constituency is beginning to shift away from the BJP.

This move away from the BJP is still nascent but visible nonetheless. It has been triggered by complete failure of Modi on the front of providing jobs. After promising two crore jobs a year, the prime minister is often at the receiving end of ridicule.

The youth voted for Modi because he was seen as the shepherd of change and betterment. For aspirational India, Modi’s changes now spell personal doom. His repeated advice to people to stop being job-seekers and instead become job-givers has not taken off. But the government has withdrawn the jobs market in a sector that the youth were eager to join.

Various estimates suggest that the number of unemployed in India rose steadily by early this year to over six crore when compared to the total number of jobless nationwide in Jan-April 2016.

The protests with its epicentre in Bihar has to be framed against the narrow victory the NDA secured in the 2020 Bihar assembly elections in which the ruling alliance trailed among younger voters.

The India Today-Axis My India exit poll claimed that 34 percent people in the 18-25 years age group voted for the NDA compared to 47 percent for the Tejashwi Yadav led Mahagathbandhan. This deficit of 13 percentage points for the NDA is certain to increase in the backdrop of the anger against the Agnipath rollout.

Also read: Demonetisation to Agnipath: Policy flip-flops of Modi government

The same survey firm reported that in Uttar Pradesh in February-March 2022, the NDA’s performance across different age-groups was lowest in the 18-25 group. The difference with the Samajwadi Party led alliance in this age group was just one percent. This establishes that the BJP has succeeded in winning elections over the years because its nationalistic agenda has been backed more by the elder voters and not the youth.

The changing demographic profiles of voters is not happy augury for the BJP as it shows that this section is being guided more by personal economics and bread and butter issues. Issues of religious polarisation and nationalism are not motivating the youth to rally behind BJP as before.

Ironically, after having played identity politics for decades, Modi has asked the youth to shed their distinctiveness after enrolling the forces. This is unlikely to go down well with the aspirants.

There are also reports that OBCs are the numerically dominant group among agitators against Agnipath scheme. If these anecdotal reports are proven correct, the BJP has a tough challenge on hand. Bye-elections for three Lok Sabha seats and seven assembly seats are to be held on June 23 and the results that are to be declared on June 26 are likely to provide indication of how the voter is responding to the government decision.

(The writer is a NCR-based author and journalist. His books include The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India, The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal)

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