In the election, the AAP failed to win a single seat. With 3.31 per cent of the votes, it finished fourth and Kothiyal lost his deposit from the Gangotri constituency, garnering just 6,161 votes. In an interview to The Indian Expressthe decorated former soldier, mountaineer, and philanthropist talks about his decision to leave the AAP and join the BJP, and his views on the Agnipath scheme.
What were your issues with the AAP?
I never had a lot of desires and just wanted to work based on my experience. Before joining politics, I carefully read the AAP and held several meetings. I liked their work culture. I met Raghav Chadha (AAP leader) and Dinesh Mohaniya (AAP MLA) and they asked me to meet Arvind Kejriwal as I was ready to join the party.
Initially, I liked how the party worked, but slowly they became stubborn over how the campaign will work. Whenever I used to give a suggestion based on my inputs, they would deny that … Party state in-charge was sure that the concept used in Delhi by the AAP would be successful in Uttarakhand too, and never listened to anyone. We even had inputs that the manifesto was not resonating with voters, but nothing changed. They did not try to build a set-up and focused only on posters and social media campaigns.
They did not talk about schools. They should have tried to show what they did in Delhi through videos. Later, they entered the ‘Hindutva’ arena. Even the promise of free pilgrimage for senior citizens in the state was not my idea. I was only propagating the same. I also had issues with the candidates fielded. About a month before the elections, I almost stopped talking to the party leadership. I was having regular arguments. But, for the sake of the campaign, I maintained that all was okay.
What made you join the BJP, and what future do you see here?
It is a known fact that I had some connection with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh since I was in the Army. The Sangh encouraged me during the restoration of Kedarnath Dham, when I was the Principal of Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) and was running the Youth Foundation camp. The work culture of the BJP is also much similar to the working of the Indian Army. Probably because of all these things the BJP was my obvious choice.
I want to work here as a normal party worker to make the progressive society stronger. What I used to do before, I can do that ten times more because now I am with the ruling party. I will take whatever responsibility the party gives me.
A senior state AAP leader said that by joining the BJP you proved their suspicion right. He also suggested that BJP national general secretary Kailash Vijayvargiya was behind you leaving the AAP and joining the saffron party.
Yes, it was Kailash Vijayvargiya who I talked to before joining the BJP. After the elections, he once asked Bhupesh Upadhyay (former AAP state working president who also joined the BJP) why he took me to AAP. When Bhupesh told me, I asked him to talk to Kailash Vijayvargiya as I was interested in joining the saffron party. He immediately accepted. I soon joined the BJP along with Bhupesh Upadhyay.
The day you joined BJP, Uttarakhand CM Pushkar Dhami said it was the beginning of the AAP’s end in the country. Do you agree?
I fully agree with what Dhami ji said. The AAP prepared for three states in 2022 – Punjab, Uttarakhand, and Goa. They won’t Punjab but the leaders they sent here completely destroyed their organization in Uttarakhand. The party will now go to Himachal Pradesh, which is also a hill state, and the results in Uttarakhand will leave an impact there too. The party has a one-man decision-making policy. It has a single model and expects it to work across the country. It is not possible.
Being a former Army man, what is your take on the Agnipath scheme?
My take on the scheme is based on my 28 years of experience in the Army, my interaction with society, and the ‘Youth Foundation Trust’ that trains youngsters to join the Army.
If we talk about national security, we are surrounded by Pakistan in the west, China in the north, Bangladesh and Myanmar in the east, and Sri Lanka in the south. Given this, we need our Army to be modernised, which means trained manpower and effective equipment. After World War 2, the jawans used to come on the reserved list after seven years of service. This was without any pension. This went on till 1977. Even then people joined the Army without any additional benefit.
To fight a war, physical fitness is very important and if the age profile of the soldiers is reduced, the Army will become younger. Several people are talking about the experience factor. To them, I want to inform you that Captain Vikram Batra who was posthumously awarded the Param Vir Chakra spent just three-and-a-half years in the Army. Second Lieutenant Arun Khetarpal (recipient of the Param Vir Chakra) had spent just six months in the Army. Hero of Uttarakhand, Jaswant Singh Rawat of Garhwal Rifles (awarded Maha Vir Chakra posthumously) had just three-and-a-half years of service. By all these examples, and several others, we can say that even though experience definitely counts, there are several other factors that cannot be ignored. The experience factor is more important for the one leading. A soldier is not the decision-maker in a battle, but the one who implements the decisions and orders. The Agniveer will be the one who is led. Primarily, we are not looking at the Agniveer as a leader, but in the future, 25 per cent of those Agnivers will become leaders too.
When it comes to the age factor, the Congress is pointing out that even the late General Bipin Rawat said we need to increase the retirement age of Army personnel. What you are saying is contradicting his statement.
There is a difference. After four years of service, the person who went to the next step will be further trained and money will be spent on that jawan. Their retirement age should be increased, no doubt. Army men in the rank of Subedar, Subedar Major, or officers’ rank, their retirement age should increase.
The technology is getting updated every day and we need newer people to handle the same. Today, the Indian Army has a ratio of 1.28 leaders for every one person to be led. We need to balance the ratio and the Agnipath scheme might be the way to do that.
Other than the claimed benefits to the Army, do you think the scheme is good for the youngsters willing to join the Army?
Based on the last few recruitments we can say around 50,000 new people are joining the Army every year. With the old system, when a person joins the Army, he will retire after 17 years if there is no promotion. In the four-year service under the Agnipath scheme, four different people can be included, out of whom one will still continue to serve in the Army. Now several ministries, state governments, and private players have announced reservations for Agniveers.
When we train a soldier, or say an Agniever, it is not just the training of handling weapons. The soldier is building bridges in the Army, he is building roads and tracks. All this training is along with employment. If a soldier has learned discipline for four years, he will create a better society.
The Agniveer who is retiring at the age of 21.5 years is free to go to the open recruitment for the para-military forces and will definitely do better. There is another question when the Army is taking 25 per cent cream of the Agnivers and the rest 75 per cent to leave work, we forget that 75 per cent is the cream when compared to a civilian. Another assumption is that the soldier who is there just for four years will not give his 100 per cent. I disagree. The soldier will try harder because he wants to be in that 25 per cent who will continue to serve in the Indian Army.
People are creating a lot of controversy over Kailash Vijayvargiya’s statement (that priority will be given to Agnifer while recruiting security guards for the BJP’s offices). But the statement needs to be clarified. The security agency is a massive employment opportunity. An Agniever with four years in the Army is trained in using both open weapons and concealed weapons. A normal person will earn Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 in a security agency, but trained personnel who knows how to use, open, or clean a concealed weapon will earn over Rs 30,000 a month. Security agency is not a letdown and security guards are earning in lakhs per month.
Some politicians have said youngsters do not join the Indian Army thinking of it as a job, but to serve the nation. Do you think it is okay to use it as an excuse to justify cutting pensions?
In other organisations, people mostly think only of jobs. But in the Army, they think both of a job and ‘Rashtra Seva (service to the nation)’. The meaning of this kind of statement is that ‘Rashtra Seva’ is the priority. Also, a 17-18-year-old boy is not bothered about money because they do not have liabilities.
However, policymakers are not using this statement as an excuse to cut pensions. Today, over 50 per cent of the defense budget is spent on salaries and pensions. Had the country been able to sustain after that much, there would have been nothing wrong with it. But that is not the case. We are in the 75th year of Independence, but we are still in a tight spot. Singapore is a small country and it established a massive sea route. Around 50 per cent of our land is surrounded by ocean but still, we are nowhere near them. The party is trying to revive things. If we spend a big part of our budget on pensions, how can we purchase aircraft that can enter China and attack them in their home?
Do you see any challenges in implementing the scheme?
The first and most important challenge is to inform people about the scheme with full clarity. We need to explain this in parts – how this is in the national interest, how this will benefit employers, and how this will benefit those coming back after four years.
Another important challenge is increasing the capacity of our training centres. The tenure of the trainers is for three years and in the last two years, there was no recruitment due to the Covid pandemic. Now, suddenly there will be massive recruitment. When we start something new, there will always be challenges. But mid-course correction can always happen.