Saturday, August 22, 2015

OROP CAN AND WILL BE A TURNING POINT : A nationalist leader cannot (afford to) alienate those who defend the country - By Omkar Goswami

Dear Prime Minister, 

This letter is a bit of history and some unsolicited advice — both suggesting how quickly good times can come to an end. 

In December 1984, Rajiv Gandhi swept the Lok Sabha elections. In the first phase, the Congress won an unprecedented 404 out of 514 seats; and another 10 in the Assam and Punjab Lok Sabha elections held in 1985. Such a feat had never happened in the history of Indian elections, and has not been repeated since. The nation gave a young man an incredible mandate to lead. 

In July 1985, Rajiv Gandhi signed the Punjab Accord with the Akali Dal. Independence Day 1985, saw an agreement being signed with the All-Assam Students Union (AASU). On December 28, 1985 Rajiv Gandhi delivered a brilliant speech at the Brabourne Stadium, Mumbai on the occasion of the Congress’s centenary celebration. It was as good as any of your best oration. 

I quote:

“We are imprisoned by narrow, domestic walls of religion, language, caste and region, blocking out the clear view of a resurgent nation… Our legislatures do not set standards for others… A convenient conscience compels individuals to meander from ideology to ideology seeking power, influence and riches. Political parties twist their tenets, enticed by opportunism… We have government servants who do not serve but oppress the poor and the helpless, police who do not uphold the law but shield the guilty, tax collectors who do not collect taxes but connive with those who cheat the state, and whole legions whose only concern is their private welfare at the cost of society. They have no work ethicno feeling for the public causeno involvement in the future of the nationno comprehension of national goalsno commitment to the values of modern India…” 

He called the Congress leadership “self-perpetuating cliques who thrive by invoking the slogans of caste and religion and by enmeshing the living body of the Congress in their net of avarice…” 

And ended with: “We obey no discipline, no rule, follow no principle of public weal. Corruption is not only tolerated but even regarded as the hallmark of leadership.” 

It seemed that nothing could go wrong.

Yet things soured. It started with the Shah Bano case, that of an elderly divorced Muslim woman whose husband had stopped paying alimony. The Supreme Court delivered an outstanding verdict in her favour. However, Rajiv Gandhi developed cold feet because he feared losing Muslim support. His government introduced the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Bill in February 1986, which became law in May 1986. It removed Muslim personal law from the Code of Criminal Procedure and denied even destitute Muslim divorced women the right to alimony from their former husbands. Rajiv Gandhi’s days of modernity had ended. 

Then came the Italian businessman, Ottavio Quattrocchi, his closeness to Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi, and how since 1981 he was winning one fertiliser plant deal after the other for his company, Snamprogetti. This was true. During 1981-87, it won orders for setting up at least 20 fertiliser plants, most of which were in the public sector, as well as for ONGC’s gas pipeline at Hazira. Quattrocchi’s powers, the rumour mill said, were not only in winning bids, but also in getting Rajiv Gandhi’s government to punish those who placed orders on others.

Then came Bofors. In March 1986, Bofors AB of Sweden won a $285 million contract to supply 410 field howitzers. Soon, Chitra Subramaniam started obtaining detailed information on bribes that Bofors paid, which started coming out in The Hindu. Suddenly, it was all about the Bofors bribe and Quattrocchi. Amounting to Rs 64 crore, it was then the largest case of graft in India’s post-1947 history and embarrassed Rajiv Gandhi to no end. Amidst the Bofors scandal, his Doon School friend, Arun Singh, quit as minister of state for defence. 
And V.P. Singh was thrown out, only to create other problems. 

The worst was Rajiv Gandhi’s ill-advised military involvement in Sri Lanka. Lured into it by Junius Jayewardene, the Indian Peace Keeping Force lost some 1,200 soldiers before finally pulling out in 1990. 

Thus, five years after the historic mandate, the young leader lost more seats than he won. The Congress won 414 Lok Sabha seats in 1984. It won only 197 in 1989. The number of seats it lost, 217, was 20 more than it won. In India, it doesn’t take long for the worm to turn. 

Prime Minister, your turning point may have arrived.

It has to do with our armed forces. When we are supposed to be achieving over 7 per cent growth, with benign inflation, better revenue collections and Brent crude oil prices at less than $50 per barrel, no one can afford to ignore the demand of one rank, one pension (OROP). Especially not someone who is seen to be such a nationalist as you. 

Your finance minister shall tell you that it will cost a fair amount. It does. The budget for 2015-16 earmarked Rs 54,500 crore for defence pensions. Full implementation of OROP would raise this by another Rs 18,000 crore. Maybe Rs 20,000 crore. But this is not an issue of money.

You cannot alienate those who have defended our country; and the families of those who died for it. Ask Arun Jaitley to cut other subsidies; prune non-plan expenditure; dramatically increase the snail’s pace of disinvestment; and bring in the GST from April 2016. But don’t delay OROP. 

Think of Param Vir Chakra awardees like Joginder Singh and Shaitan Singh who died fighting the Chinese in 1962; Abdul Hamid and Ardeshir Tarapore who perished on the western front in 1965; Albert Ekka, Nirmal Jit Singh Sekhon and Arun Khetrapal who laid down their lives in 1971; Ramaswamy Parameshwaran who died in Sri Lanka in 1987; or Manoj Pandey, Yogendra Singh Yadav, Sanjay Kumar and Vikram Batra who fell defending Kargil in 1999. 

You cannot alienate the families of these men and of others who are ready to fight and defend their nation — people who are far braver than you or I will ever be. 
You estrange the best of this land at your peril. 

Dr. Omkar Goswami, a Consultant to the World Bank, IMF, the Asian Development Bank, and the OECD and founder and chairperson of CERG Advisory Private Limited .