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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 21, May 9, 2009

The Great Pole (Poll) Vault

Wednesday 13 May 2009, by S G Vombatkere

Among Ex-Servicemen of the Army, Navy and Air Force (collectively called military veterans), the Congress-led UPA Government is widely seen as having given them as also serving personnel, a raw deal especially following the recommendations of the controversial Sixth Central Pay Commission (6 CPC). Veterans have been unprecedentedly demonstrating since mid-December 2008 in demand of one-rank-one-pension (OROP) and other key issues at Jantar Mantar, Delhi, with delegates from all over India. It has grown into the Indian Ex-Servicemen Movement (IESM), with a preponderance of officer membership and leadership.

The Congress’ neglect of the veterans’ demands has been used to advantage by the BJP since serving and retired soldiers total over three million and with their families may comprise a five-million vote-bank, and for the first time ever, serving personnel polling almost 100 per cent of votes since they will vote at the place of duty. The BJP’s assurance that if it comes to power, OROP would be implemented, and the warm reception accorded by the IESM to L.K.Advani’s visit at Jantar Mantar is evidence enough. Strangely, veterans did not question Advani as to why OROP was not implemented when the BJP-led NDA Government was in power for a full term in spite of its approval in principle by the NDA’s Defence Minister, George Fernandes. Instead, neglected for decades by the political-bureaucratic nexus, veterans animatedly discussed amongst themselves how the BJP was in their favour while the Congress was not.

In furtherance of the BJP’s tactic, its election manifesto states: “All personnel of the Army, Air Force and Navy, as also paramilitary forces, will be exempt from paying income tax on their salaries and perquisites.“ Significantly, the IESM decided at the “maha-rally” at Jantar Mantar on April 12, 2009, attended by over 8000 veterans from all over India, to request veterans to vote for the BJP except where the IESM veterans stand for election. Clearly, the BJP’s second “cookie” has served its purpose, but the matter needs deeper discussion.

In the event that the BJP comes to power leading a coalition as in the past, there will be pressure from veterans regarding their election promise of OROP and IT exemption. The fact is that the large bulk of the defence services, both serving and retired, do not receive taxable incomes —the benefit of IT exemption will go largely to the officer category. It is inconceivable that the bureaucracy, which is seen as acting against the defence services in Orders of Precedence and successive Pay Commissions, will allow something so revolutionary as exemption of IT to go through, when they had effectively blocked OROP with the argument that is not financially viable and other Central Government employees would make similar, undeniable demands.

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Hitherto, notwithstanding the cases of HR violations by soldiers in counter-insurgency operations reported in the media, the public has had a soft corner for the military, which is seen as a disciplined force more sinned against than sinning. Especially when viewed in the backdrop of venal, self-serving politicians playing unprincipled politics, the military appears as a relatively spotless organisation that is entitled to some leeway because of the kind of service it renders to the nation at personal risk of life and limb. The canteen facilities and excise exemption that the military enjoys has long been the focus of envious eyes among other sections of government employees, who are mostly unaware of the role and relatively disadvantageous conditions of service of the military in national affairs. Even though the military has not initiated the case for IT exemption, there are those who would benefit by making it appear so to the public, and this is certain to start a downslide of the public image of the military.

With regard to OROP, the BJP’s innocuous statement that it will convince its coalition partners for implementation may be viewed as a convenient exit policy in case of obstacles. Thus, the BJP would have used serving and retired military personnel as the pole to pole-vault (or poll-vault, in the present context) to power over the Congress and, like the pole-vaulter, left the pole behind. This may still be considered fair play in our increasingly murky national politics.

But for its part, the military is already suffering from lowered morale following the 6 CPC, and the bait offered by the BJP has been eagerly grasped. A troubling thought is that, as is likely when OROP and IT exemption fail to materialise, the military’s disenchantment with political parties as indeed with government, will be complete. This, coupled with a diminished public image, bodes ill for India because of its seriously negative national security repercussions.

Major General S.G.Vombatkere retired as the Additional Director General, Discipline and Vigilance, in Army HQ, New Delhi in 1996 after 35 years in the Indian Army. He holds a Guinness Book and Limca Book record for design and construction of the motorable bridge at the highest altitude in the world (18,300 ft) in Ladakh in 1982. He holds a Ph.D degree in structural dynamics from the IIT, Madras, and the President of India awarded him the Visishta Seva Medal in 1993 for distinguished service rendered in Ladakh. Since retirement, he is engaged in voluntary work with the Mysore Grahakara Parishat, and is a member of the National Alliance of People’s Movements and People’s Union for Civil Liberties. He coordinates and lectures a course on Science, Technology and Sustainable Development for students from the University of Iowa, USA, and two universities of Canada, who spend a semester at Mysore as part of their programme of Studies Abroad in South India.

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