Time was when someone slow on the uptake was dubbed a “tube-light” ~ they do not switch-on instantaneously. It might, therefore, be tempting to deride the home minister as one: he waited a week before opting to clarify that young people from all minority communities ~ not Muslims alone ~ were covered by his controversial note to the states asking them to be careful when involving such folk in terrorist investigations. Some would feel that the matter should be treated as closed after he clarified his position at a public event in the Capital, others would say it was a case of too little too late, the damage had been done. Yet was there any “damage”? That Sushil Kumar Shinde had initially made light of the objections from the BJP, and others, to his 30 September missive, declined to issue an immediate clarification, arouses suspicions of a cunning ploy hardly befitting a Union home minister. The target audience had been “addressed”, Muslim youth had got the political message: how many of them will even be aware of the minister subsequently explaining that his’ was a caution on behalf of others too. Note the limited media attention to the retraction, contrast it to the “splash” he had secured for himself a week or so earlier. His alibi that he had mentioned “innocent Muslim youth” only in the opening lines of his note that thereafter switched to “minority” is far from convincing. There was mischief to the madness.
It is becoming apparent that even as they vociferously accuse Narendra Modi and the BJP of being divisive, leaders of the Congress party are falling into the trap, matching one brand of communalism with another. Their appeal to traditional vote-banks like the minorities and dalits is increasingly blatant: significantly it was at a camp focussed on the empowerment of the Scheduled Castes that Shinde sought to set the record straight, actually further queering the pitch. The greater tragedy is that there is a high degree of public acceptance, maybe not approval, of such low electoral politics. As the elections near ~ be they at the state or national level ~ more filth will fly. Seeking votes through appeals on the basis of caste, religion, communal or linguistic affiliation is no better than using muscle and money power, or ensuring that the liquor flows on the eve of polling day. No party is innocent, all sacrifice principles at the altar of “winnability”. The Election Commission may issue guidelines, the Supreme Court interpret the law in stringent manner, but the ground realities have changed little over the years. Reaching Parliament House and Raisina Hill through the gutters is commonplace: only technically are votes “polled”, in effect they are manipulated.
Were they not fore-armed with the knowledge that the military is not prone to knee-jerk flip-flops, well-wishers of the Indian defence services would be confounded by the disclosure that the Chiefs of Staff Committee has expressed itself against the long-standing demand for a separate Pay Commission. Instead, the COSC has opted for adequate representation on the panel that will undertake an overall review of the government&’s payroll. Hopefully the layman ~ the taxpayer ~ will be enlightened on the policy-shift: particularly since after the prolonged, not terribly successful, exercise to remedy persisting “anomalies” in the last award the government had conceded that a separate mechanism would be in order. Were previous COSCs off-target, or is this a re-formulation of tactics so that objectives are attained without rubbing others up the wrong way? Or have the forces eventually realised that their colonial-oriented emphasis on being “exclusive” has begun to yield negative returns. Still unclear is precisely what nature of representation will satisfy the forces; it is, however, apparent that they had “intelligence” that the appointment of the VII Pay Commission was in the offing and mounted what might be deemed a pre-emptive strike. It will take some time for the yet-to-be nominated panel to get down to business, the forces would be expected to have formulated their “demands” well in advance, and hopefully they will not be required to “educate” the panel on their unique requirements ~ provided, of course, that there are serving/retired defence personnel on that panel. This is where “tactics” could deliver: recommendations of a single panel might extract more from the tijori-wallahs, who would have surely dug their heels in when processing a separate panel&’s suggestions. It remains, however, a pathetic reflection on the quality of national governance that 66 years after Independence the civil-military divide is so wide, acerbic.
Traditionally pay panels enlarge the scope of their activity to take in administrative reform, and it would be in the best interests of the nation if the forces find a way to reduce the share of manpower-related expenses from their overall budgets. Given the huge, antiquated, tooth-to-tail ratio the demands for thicker pay-packets appears wishful thinking when there are so many pay-packets to be filled. The forces have “made do” with considerable vacancies in the officer cadres for so long that it might be worth exploring if a reduction of desired numbers is possible, particularly if that helps satisfy the demand for higher “compensation”. Also, there must be some weighing of the pay packets against perks, cutting the latter could boost the former. And in the ultimate analyses, reduced manpower could result in more firepower. The military has to shed the obsolete thinking adopted by Sonia Gandhi when she declared “funds will have to be found….”