Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: Why Agnipath is not the reform the armed forces need

The structure of the military has massive ramifications for security, and also for social organization at large. The Agnipath scheme is a major structural reform with consequences both for the armed forces and society at large. Some reforms and restructuring of the armed forces was overdue. Sometimes, scepticism about reforms reflects an underlying status quo bias, rather than an assessment of needs. But it is also the case that this Agnipath is as much about creating a political illusion of reform as it is about addressing the armed forces’ needs. The spin given to the reform needs to be treated with a lot more caution.

For starters, it is being conveniently glossed over that the reform is rooted in a political economy failure. The current ruling dispensation deeply politicised the question of armed forces’ pensions by making it a central election issue. The resulting OROP reform was a huge fiscal burden on the state. There is a lesson in this. Brazen institutional populism will always incur long-term costs for the institution; and always protecting the benefits of incumbents in that institution will come at the expense of future recruits. A combination of political populism, and the armed forces’ own lack of creative leadership on pension issues, has led to the officecrats who like both triumphs the casualisation of government employment and are penny wise pound foolish.

Sometimes, fiscal crises can be leveraged for creative reform. But the framing around the issue suggests that this is going to be nothing of the sort. For one thing, for all the bluster about China and Great Power competition, we have signaled that we simply do not have the fiscal resources for the big game. The finance tail will wag the strategic dog too much. The second framing is that the armed forces needed two fundamental shifts: A shift from reliance on personnel to technology, and a younger age profile of soldiers. Both are laudatory goals. But is this the best way to achieve them? For starters, the issue of technology versus troops is one that should be dealt with in its own terms, not governed just by the logic of cutting your pension bill.

And it is also important not to be carried away by simplistic ideas that technology can replace troops on the ground. Pretty much every recent war, from Afghanistan to Ukraine, is driving that lesson home. In India’s case, we have been so often told that presence on a large inhospitable border is vital to holding territory. A younger age profile might help. But surely that has to be weighed against training, experience and professional bonds. With the new recruiting practices, will it be the case that the army has too long a tail of inexperienced soldiers, as Lt Gen PR Shankar pointed out in his article, ‘Tour of Duty: The Kindergarten Army’?

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One major reform is recruitment on an all-India basis, rather than by state allotments. This may be a good thing. But two things have to be kept in mind. First, the Indian Army’s success as an institution embedded in democracy has in part come from its ability to maintain some regional balance, and become the army of all of India. As Steven Wilkinson’s work pointed out, this balance is crucial in avoiding ethnic conflict and civil war. Second, all-India recruitment will require a massive organizational and cultural shift in the army. It might be desirable and possible to achieve this. But here, the objectives are internally inconsistent. If you want to create new regimental cultures, sources of loyalty and discipline, you need longer terms of service together rather than shorter ones. We also know from the experience of other institutions that it might be harder to integrate recruits that are on two different professional tracks.

Many armies have short tours of duty because there is a shortage of potential recruits. In other cases, there is voluntary enlistment. But here what you are doing is absurdly marketing the army as a skill development school. There is the obvious challenge of how much of its skills will be marketable. But more importantly: What happens to the idea of ​​professional identity where your service is so short? Doubtless, it can shape you. But can it become your professional identity? The armed forces are sustained by a combination of duty, norms and incentives. But even more important is a sense of professional identity: “This is who I am.” Is so short a tour of duty enough for that? What does it mean to have an institution where for a large majority of recruits, the institution will not be a significant part of your professional identity?

And finally, there are the ramifications for society. This one is a delicate needle to thread. If the army experience is so fabulous that no civilian job after it matches up to its sense of purpose or working conditions, you are setting up large numbers of young people to a life of frustration. On the other hand, if it is not a great experience, deeply professionalized, you are potentially militarising a lot of young people, without the future safeguard of military discipline. There is ample evidence of the potential for the militarisization of society that comes from prematurely decommissioned soldiers. What happens in the army has huge sociological implications, and if not handled well, we could be playing with fire.

Government casualness recently botched up a much simpler reform: The creation of the post of Chief of Defense Staff. The fact that it has been six months since an appointment was made telling you either that the post is not as important as we think, or that there is a dearth of competent people (unlikely), or that there is even more politics to these positions than is warranted. Indeed, we have not even sorted out the protocols for this position. The three service chiefs are, rightly, senior to the defense secretary. But the CDS was made secretary to the Department of Military Affairs. In that capacity he is subordinate to the service chiefs, and yet he is senior to them. This episode in miniature has all the hallmarks of what happens when spin dominates: No attention to detail, political logic overriding institutional sanity.

The armed forces need support and reform. But reforms should be governed by a sound sociological, professional, institutional and strategic logic. This reform fails the smell test on all four. A dose of scepticism might be a better act of patriotism than cheerleading blindly, especially if you want reforms to succeed.

The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express

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