This article was previously published on Fair Observer.
By Mayank Singh
Dear Mr. Modi,
I write to you as an average citizen of India. I refrain from using the clichéd term “common man,” which has been flogged to death by politicians. I do not hold membership of any political party, as I find that all of them are affected by similar maladies.
Though not bound by the ideology of any political party, I am not apolitical. I am an admirer of your developmental brand of politics, a “sin” for which the pseudo-liberal intellectuals of this country derisively referred to me as “communal.” The fact that I abhorred the intermingling of religion and politics as practiced by some politicians remained irrelevant in the larger sub-text. Now the same class condescendingly refers to me as “bhakt” (disciple or acolyte). Not that it matters.
I am someone who supported you during the travails of the Ishrat Jahan encounter; during the time when the United States refused to issue you a visa; and even when publicly supporting you was anathema. I was part of the crowd that poured onto the streets of Varanasi on the day you were nominated for the 2014 parliamentary elections. Taking sabbatical leave from work, I campaigned in villages in your support during the scorching Indian summer when your party cadres were missing from the battlefield. I thronged the polling booths across India to ensure an unprecedented mandate for you.
And why did I do that? For a simple reason: trust. Trust in your ability to deliver governance; trust in your ability to revive the sagging Indian economy and provide employment to youth who were let down by your predecessor; trust in your ability to defend the nation’s borders and provide leadership to the country; and trust in your ability to provide leadership to ensure that the succeeding generations inherit a strong and developed India.
Let me affirm that my trust in your abilities and leadership has not diminished, despite the inherent cynicism I have developed toward politicians over the past 69 years. I understand the necessities of your international visits, and I feel proud to witness the accolades you receive on foreign shores. I understand the roadblocks creating hindrance for economic reforms, so I retain my confidence in your ability to deliver. I also appreciate the compulsions and constraints that have delayed the anticipated administrative reforms. I have the patience to wait for—if I may borrow from your election slogan—acchche din (better days).
However, you must acknowledge that a democracy requires institutions of governance, apart from a well-meaning individual.
That the institutions of governance have degenerated since independence is no secret. Parliament has become dysfunctional and perhaps the worst example to emulate. Respect for parliamentarians has reached an abyss, with television anchors unhesitatingly reprimanding agitated participants in talk shows with a brusque, “this is not parliament.” Nothing could be worse for a democracy. But our politicians have brought this shame upon themselves. Irresponsible and reckless behavior inside the parliament justifiably brings opprobrium.
The judiciary, burdened with pending litigations and outdated laws, has been unable to deliver justice. Apart from the Supreme Court, the judicial system is considered corrupt and also beyond the means of the average citizen. The executive, represented by the bureaucracy, has outlived its utility. Clinging onto archaic British-era rules, it is decrepit and venal. Considered as a bunch of opportunistic self-seekers, their corruption and inefficiency invites only revulsion. The “steel framework” of the British Empire has rusted irreversibly.
So whom does the country turn to during hours of crisis? Who steps in when a tsunami decimates the shores of Tamil Nadu, or when a cloudburst deluges Uttarakhand, or when floods engulf Assam and Bihar?
The military, of course. With a failing system all around, it is only the armed forces that India looks to for succor. Defending the country’s borders has become a minor detail in their profile.
A simple survey will reveal that ironically, the armed forces are the most trusted institutions of governance. It is ironic because in a democracy, the military cannot be considered an institution of governance in the strictest sense of the word. But discipline, efficiency, and leadership have ensured that average citizens of India unfailingly put their trust in the army. Although incidents like the Adarsh housing scam and the growing corruption during recruitment of soldiers have taken some sheen of their grandeur, there is no denying the fact that Indians place the forces on a pedestal.
Chiefs of the three services of the Indian Armed Forces meet students.
Come to think of it, the embodiment of these very qualities resulted in the people trusting you. So, why the sudden deficit of trust between the two now? Why the dilemma over the One Rank One Pension (OROP) scheme? Why delay the implementation of something you had assured the ex-servicemen of during the 2014 electoral campaign?
It is to their eternal credit that the ex-servicemen protesting the delay in the implementation of OROP kept patient, despite their despicable manhandling by Delhi police on the eve of India’s Independence Day. They retained their expectations from you, despite the defense minister, Manohar Parrikar, citing “technical difficulties” for the delay in OROP.
The people retained their patience because of that oft-repeated factor: trust. They trusted you to come up with some formula to alleviate the pain of their justified demands being ignored.
But perhaps the evasiveness, both in your speech and body language on Independence Day, was a disappointment. Even to a layman, you appeared surprisingly hesitant while referring to OROP. A lack of conviction, while reiterating commitment to implement OROP, disappointed the forces. Perhaps it was the unfortunate manhandling of the previous day, or maybe bureaucracy has created a mountain over a molehill for OROP—the reference to OROP in your speech appeared perfunctory. The smirk on the faces of officers at Red Fort epitomized this deficit of trust.
Ever since then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi discontinued OROP in 1973, the forces have been struggling for its reintroduction. Returning their valor medals and writing letters in blood to seek justice were gradual steps to ensure their demands were met. Your assertions supporting OROP during the electoral campaign in 2014 raised their expectations. Disappointment is a natural consequence of being let down.
The perception of disappointment has more to do with the mistrust of armed forces toward the civilian bureaucracy, which is predisposed to maintain its supremacy and, therefore, is adopting dilatory tactics against OROP. The staggering variation with projected requirements for OROP, ranging from Rs 1,000 crores ($152 million) to Rs 8,000 crores ($1.2 billion) has only served to accentuate the perception of bureaucratic perfidy. A lack of clarity regarding the “technical difficulties” being referred to by Parrikar has only fueled suspicions about the government’s motives.
The government’s excuse of trying to balance the chance of fiscal deficit arising due to the implementation of OROP—though perhaps economically correct—would not pass muster in the battle of perceptions. More so when parliamentarians unashamedly raise their benefits periodically while parliament remains non-functional.
Though lacking the expertise to tutor on the art of governance, it is my conviction that a leader should never appear to be penny-pinching while providing benefits to his soldier. A soldier who retires at the age of 34 when his civilian friends are beginning their lives needs to feel confident that the government will stand by him. A commando raid into Myanmar to take out terrorists with the pension issue lurking in a soldier’s mind is a recipe for disaster. The days when Roman emperors would provide rotten food to their armies to increase their hunger to fight are long gone.
The OROP issue requires immediate intervention at your level. The fact that it is not only about economics and parity, but also dignity must not be ignored.
I trust you. So do the armed forces. Repaying the trust is onerous. I am confident in your ability to remove the deficit of trust. But the time to start doing so is now.
The Average Citizen
Mayank Singh is a writer whose most recent focus has been exposing the corruption that permeates all walks of life in India. He is also working on his first novel based on the intrigues of a political system gone awry.