The Union government was still wrestling with the domestic and international outcome of Nupur Sharma’s derogatory fulminations when a new controversy emerged. The youth spontaneously rioted in a number of states over the government’s new policy for recruitment to the defence services. Termed Agnipath, it turned a major employment path for youth into a four year short-term deployment, at the end of which, only a quarter of them would be re-absorbed by the defence services. The rest would apparently have gained skills to become entrepreneurs or private sector employees.
The state-wise per ten lakh of population numbers joining the defence services throws up interesting figures. The highest are from Himachal Pradesh at 402, Uttarakhand comes next with 271, then Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, and Haryana have 185, 174 and 122 respectively. With elections to the Himachal state assembly due by the end of the year, the angst of the youth may have political implications for the BJP. PM’s own state Gujarat is at the bottom with 16. Preceding this Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced the hiring for ten lakh jobs in next 18 months.
Youth unemployment has been resonating louder in public discussions. The move to change the character of the Indian army by increasing all-India recruitment and thus gradually phasing out regiments with a rich history of fighting as ethnically distinct entities has broken out a public spat amongst retired generals. The critics point out that a four year tenure, of which six months are devoted to training, would hardly equip a soldier to develop the esprit de corps that has traditionally been the hallmark of Indian soldiers.
Those defending the government’s new recruitment policy call it a necessary step to diminish the nearly one quarter of defence budget going to pensions. It is also argued that India needs a smaller, technically adept and more agile army, as Chinese President Xi Jinping has mandated for the People’s Liberation Army. Former US President Bill Clinton, when marketing his North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) assured the critics that US workers would be retrained and up-skilled to grab new jobs when lower skilled jobs shifted to Mexico. In reality that never happened.
Thus what faces India is the following conundrum. On the one hand, BJP’s divisive politics is unlikely to be shelved after the brouhaha. The tactics will be reassessed and redlines relaid to not attack Islam per se but just practices of its Indian followers. Meanwhile, after two decades of global economic growth a recession is looming in the US and the West, worsened by the Ukraine war and resulting global inflation. The US Fed has steeply hiked the lending rates causing a bear market syndrome. It is a replication of the global economic turmoil resulting from the oil boycott by OPEC nations after the 1973 Arab-Israel War. In India, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, deeply entrenched after her 1971 victory over Pakistan, was shaken up enough to declare emergency in 1975.
Thus, BJP must learn from historical experience. Francis Fukuyama, in his latest book, ‘Liberalism’ traces the growth and challenges faced by the post World War II liberal democracies. He explains that diverse societies are best governed on the basis of classical liberalism. The greatest Mughal Emperor Akbar was tolerant and liberal by instinct and saw India flourish and grow powerful. His descendant Aurangzeb negated that liberalism and expended Mughal power in vain pursuit of religion as the organising principle of his regime. In the US, the 1861 civil war was fought on whether the nation should be organised on the basis of race or the US constitution, which promised equality of all men. Lincoln died protecting the Constitution but saved the nation.
The same battle is being refought in the US, with Trump still circling US electoral politics. It is also underway in India with the BJP routinely weakening institutions and feeding religion-based identity politics. Tinkering with the recruitment and structuring of the Indian army is a dangerous move as the army is still a bastion of national unity and secular coexistence. Fukuyama warns that while, “Liberalism lowers the temperature of politics”, it cannot work if “a significant part of a society does not accept liberal principles”. He explains that in that case liberalism cannot maintain political order, as happened in the US in 1861.
However, the danger is greater in India as BJP combines socio-religious conservatism with neo-liberal economics. Fukuyama illustrates that privatisation and liberalisation leads to rise of government linked oligarchs if courts and regulators do not play the arbiters of public good. The daily acquisitions by a newly risen Indian billionaire, the disastrous IPO of LIC, the never investigated economic damage caused by demonetisation etc., are examples of naive experimentation masquerading as economic reform. Hopefully, the people of India will start sending a message via their ballots that they need liberal democracy back. Failure of Samrat Prithviraj at box office may indicate public fatigue with divisive narratives. The president that gets elected next in July can help or hinder that process.
(The writer is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs)