No, this is not just about the protests over Agnipath and would-not-be Agniveers that are erupting all over the country. Well, not merely or entirely about them at any rate. We do not need experts or experienced India-watchers to tell us that there is more than meets the eye to these protests.
There are political forces, probably leading parties, not to mention the usual foreign hands at play. Though the evidence is not forthcoming yet, we can surmise that it will be released soon enough.
Because, let's face it, the country is at war. Not only with enemies outside or across its borders, but within too. We suffer from a divided and polarised polity. Given the slew of states announcing concessions, preferences and sops for future Agniveers, we also know that Indian democracy is characterised, more and more, by different shades and degrees of populism.
Protest and populism - these seem to have become the predominant markers of the nation. So too would the irony of terms such as "Agniveer" and "Agnipath" not be lost on the ordinary citizens of the country.
Leaving aside the fiery path to valour, our would-be shining heroes - at least a section of them - actually resemble an incendiary mob, torching trains and buses, destroying public and private property, trying to browbeat the state into giving in to their demands for permanent placement.
Where? In the Armed Forces, which are to defend the country and uphold the honour of their regiments, which represent a code of conduct that protects civilians and non-combatants from being targets of violence. Now, do these arsonists and lawbreakers, by virtue of such actions which ought to disqualify them forever from serving in uniform, seek to bully and intimidate their way into those very forces that are meant to protect the state and its citizens from such elements?
No, such ironies will not be lost on us for they are too obvious and painful to be missed. Instead, the rioters know that once their names get into the police records, they will be no good for the Armed Forces or any state employment. So, isn't it obvious that many of them are paid protesters and operatives rather than genuine "Agnipath" aspirants? Even their faces, as shown in the media, indicate that many are over the age of 23. Much more, as I hinted earlier, is going on behind the scenes, especially if one looks at earlier protests such as that of the farmers, which went on for over a year.
Who cares for the facts - or in this case - for the figures? The amount of money spent on pension exceeds the salary bill of the Armed Forces for the year 2020–2021. Nearly half the enormous defence budget of USD 77 billion or Rs 6 lakh crore - something in the range of Rs 3 lakh crore - is being spent on salaries and non-combat costs each year on serving or retired personnel, many of whom may have lived through their entire career only in peacetime duties.
That a large part of the present budget of the forces is "non-productive" by any standards is a sad truth that we do not like to face. Ours, which is the second-largest standing force in the world, with close to 1.5 million soldiers in uniform, will soon cease to be fighting fit and competitive if we carry on like this. We need to invest in equipment, technology, and upgrade weaponry, infrastructure, and so on. But no, the Armed Forces too must be turned into a gigantic employment agency to satisfy the needs of the agitators who seek permanent government jobs.
The starting salary of Agniveers will be over Rs 30,000 per month, rising to Rs 40,000 per month by the fourth year. Only 25 per cent will continue in the services while the others will get an exit package called Seva Nidhi to the tune of Rs 11.71 lakh each. Additionally, several states have also announced other employment possibilities for them. So what is wrong with the scheme? How is it not in the nation's interests or not beneficial to the youth?
The truth is that every reform in India hits the same roadblocks - a divided polity and the compulsions of populism. That is why I said at the outset that this column is not just about the Agniveer protests. Instead, it is about what I would call democracy's dark matter. Like dark matter, which hypothetically occupies 85 per cent of the universe although it lacks luminosity nor interacts with the electromagnetic field, India's divided polity and culture wars occupy so much space in our democracy.
This means that any opportunity to bring down the Narendra Modi-led BJP sarkar or to show India in poor light, whether domestically or internationally, will not be missed. This, in turn, also makes the members and supporters of the government more vehement, aggressive and unforgiving of the opposition. As with the farm bills, neither Parliament nor the opposition, let alone the young stakeholders, press and the broader thinking public, have been taken into confidence in matters of national importance such as the newly announced Agniveer scheme.
Unilateralism, rather than consultation or consensus, is the chosen methodology, with the instruments of state power commissioned to bludgeon through policy or manage the narrative afterwards. This is not how a government "of the people, by the people, for the people" ought to operate. But as the protests mount, more and more concessions and dilutions are likely to be announced, weakening the scheme. What, then, is a brute majority good for if it does not demonstrate moral strength and electoral resilience, but impose "reforms" followed by populist roll-backs and concessions?
What is the way forward? Reduce divisive issues and policies that alienate sections of the populace. Reach out to all sections of the citizenry. Rather than only blowing the trumpet of government schemes, apply the healing touch. Invite all sections of the political spectrum for discussions and consultation. Ensure a peaceful daily life for most Indians rather than simmering discord and constant conflict.
This government has achieved much for which it should be proud. Most importantly, it managed the economy in a way that kept the country afloat unlike other countries in the neighbourhood that have been reduced to a sorry state almost of disgraceful beggary. The Agniveer scheme, too, is meant to make our Armed Forces much more economically viable and globally competitive.
But with all these accomplishments, the legacy of Modi@8 is also a disturbing sense of a divided society and country at war with itself. It is this that must change before 2024. It is time to pay attention to, and even mitigate, democracy's dark matter. Especially if India@75 is really supposed to be an Amrit Mahotsav - the grand celebration of the elixir of liberty, instead of the dark age of a fractured polity and divided society.
(The writer is a professor of English at JNU and tweets @MakrandParanspe)