New Year's Resolutions, it is said, are made to be broken. There's something about a new dawn that inspires the earnestness of yearned-for virtue in most of us, and we solemnly pledge to do this and that in the course of the New Year which we never thought ourselves capable of fulfilling in the old. And then, as the New Year turns less new, we tend to regret those rash resolutions, modify them, ignore them, or most of all, simply forget them.
Our new government didn't wait for the New Year to make something of a habit of breaking its promises, as a celebrated Congress Party publication on the BJP's many U-turns pointed out in early December. To some degree, this is unsurprising in most democracies: after all, as New York Governor Mario Cuomo famously pointed out more than two decades ago, "you campaign in poetry, but you govern in prose".
Extravagant campaign promises tend to look much more difficult to fulfil when faced with the reality of government.
But still, it is something new to discover a government breaking a promise that it has repeatedly made not just in its campaign but on the floor of Parliament, expressed by the Finance Minister in his Budget speech and repeated by the Prime Minister himself. A failure to fulfil such promises is normally, in most parliamentary democracies, a resigning matter, but our government carries on, blithely unconcerned. Meanwhile, of this particular promise, there is no sign of any intention to actually fulfil it.
What am I going on about? Very simple: it is the pledge to ensure "One Rank One Pension" for our retired military personnel, who currently suffer gross injustice through the provision of pensions that have not been indexed to inflation, so that a Brigadier who retired twenty years ago gets a lower pension than a Captain who leaves the force this year.
This entirely reasonable demand - made by people who have risked their lives to protect our borders, our nation, and us - was acceded to by the UPA government, echoed by the NDA, and announced again by the new regime after its ascension to power. Barely two months ago, Prime Minister Modi declared emotionally on his visit to the troops in Siachen that "One Rank One Pension has been fulfilled".
But Modi-ji, it has not been fulfilled. Not one soldier has received an enhanced pension; meanwhile leaks in the newspapers "reveal" that the Finance Ministry has had a change of heart, saying that justice to our men in uniform would "cost too much".
It seems the Comptroller of Defence Accounts has estimated that the cost of One Rank One Pension could be as high as 9,300 crore. It may sound a lot, but the estimated budget for Mr Modi's much-vaunted statue of Sardar Patel is 1,500 crore, which puts this sum in perspective.
At a recent media conclave, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar hedged his bets, suggesting that ex-servicemen would get 80% of the promised pension, and adding that "100% satisfaction to everyone is never given in real life." This is an utter travesty. Is Mr Modi prepared to stand before the nation and say that we should not believe anything he promises, but that he will try to deliver 80% of it? If the Kargil war had happened on his watch, would we have to be content with getting 80% of the heights back?
Our soldiers never make 80% effort; they give 100%, indeed more. The nation owes them at least this much.
It is true I have a soft corner for our armed forces. I believe they embody the best of what India can be, but so rarely is: they are motivated, professional, meritocratic, competent, reliable, free of caste and religious prejudice, and they take risks the rest of us would not dare to. Yet we treat them in a disgracefully cavalier fashion.
During my UN peace-keeping years, when I dealt with a large number of senior military officers and issues from around the world, I was appalled to see how poorly our professional officers were valued by our self-regarding bureaucracy.
Whereas our officers, man to man, outshone their counterparts from Western militaries in their competence, intelligence and humanity, our system subjected them to various petty indignities. A full Colonel with over 25 years of service behind him is ranked by our babus below a Director in protocol terms. I have suffered through peacekeeping seminars in which a knowledgeable Indian military officer had to defer to a callow bureaucrat in discussions on military matters. At a time when post-Cold War peacekeeping called for serious levels of military expertise at the UN Headquarters in New York, India remained the only Permanent Mission to the UN (of any major peace-keeping contributor) not to post a military adviser. Our diplomats believed they knew it all themselves.
This attitude extends to conditions of service across the board. A Joint Secretary, with nineteen years of professional experience, is deemed the equivalent of a Major-General, who not only has thirty years but has commanded men and materiel, made life-and-death decisions and protected our nation. We pay pensions to a lot more Joint Secretaries than Major-Generals (only 0.8% of army officers ever attain Major General rank). Yet we are now quibbling about the cost.
Who are the people we are cheating here by pinching pennies? Some 20 lakh ex-servicemen and four lakh widows. It is time to ask the Government of Messrs Modi and Jaitley: gentlemen, have you no shame?
It is ironic that the BJP, which prides itself on a robust attitude to defence, should betray its own promises to the men who actually defend our country. Building a War Memorial is symbolism, which the Modi government seems much better at than substance. Actually making a difference in the lives of our retired service personnel is the kind of tangible benefit this government shrinks from too often.
As far back as 2003, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence recommended One Rank One Pension, calling it "a debt" the nation had to pay. It is a debt our Government must honour. Not to do so is an act of dishonor. It dishonours the nation and the flag these men have fought to defend. And it thoroughly discredits those who would treat the well-being of our jawans and officers as one more election promise to be lightly cast aside.
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