Finance Minister P Chidambaram’s announcement in his poll eve interim budget to fulfill a long standing 'one rank one pension’ demand for 24 lakh ex-servicemen and 14 lakh serving defence personnel is a clear move to somehow restrict what is perceived to be a certain tilt towards the BJP.
The credit for the UPA government’s sudden concern to address this hugely emotive issue among ex-servicemen has naturally been given to Rahul Gandhi. One Congress minister after another came out and hailed the party vice president for showing unprecedented heart, courage and conviction. And after all, it had been just three days since the media was informed that Gandhi had, after meeting a group of ex-servicemen, backed this contentious demand.
The one rank, one pension initiative, purportedly introduced on Rahul's demand, is another way to portray him as an effective leader, who makes firm decisions and gets results. It comes on the back of his ordinance tearing, to asking the cabinet to review the Adarsh report, to increasing allocation of subsidised LPG cylinders from nine to twelve.
There is a perception that a vast mass of ex-servicemen are tilting towards Modi. The size and response of his Rewari rally has been seen as an indicator in this regard. The BJP has in fact been working with a number of ex-servicemen in a more organised manner and considers them a solid support base for the party.
And it is not just the BJP that is taking away military votes. The Aam Admi Party’s anti-corruption plank is also reportedly finding favour among a section of servicemen.
When it comes to the actual number of votes, it is not simply the actual serving and retired personnel but the number of dependents in his/her real or extended family that are at stake. This adds up to about 1.5 crore people, spread across the country. Defence Minister AK Antony for once was seen thumping his desk with both hands when Chidambaram made one rank one pension announcement. For the last few years he had steadfastly been turning down this demand.
Earlier this month four lakh retired central para-military personnel were put at par with ex-servicemen, so that they could be given the same kind of social benefit schemes.
The question of course, is if the critical one rank one pay announcement, will help Congress turn the electoral tide. While the Congress would like to believe so, there is no evidence yet to support that belief.
The UPA government had after all announced the constitution of the Seventh Pay Commission in September just ahead of announcing assembly elections in five states. More so, that announcement was made three years ahead of the schedule. The next pay revision was due only in 2016 but the Congress still went ahead with it. The implications of the move, in any case would have to be dealt by the next government.
The voters didn’t buy that. The Congress was completely routed in four north-Indian states and three time chief minister Sheila Dikshit suffered a most humiliating defeat by Arvind Kejriwal in the New Delhi assembly constituency, which is dominated by government employees.
That however, has not stopped the UPA from actually constituting the Seventh Pay Commission. Last week the Prime Minister cleared the appointment of Ashok Kumar Mathur, a retired Supreme Court judge and retired chairman of the Armed Forces Tribunal as the panel’s chairman to revise the salary structure of 50 lakh central government employees, including those in defence and railways, and about 30 lakh pensioners. It will have a spiraling effect on PSUs, banking, universities and state government employees.
As per an unofficial estimate there are another 50 lakhs employees in Public sector undertakings, central and state combined. Add state government and autonomous bodies, and this figure could go up to two crore, which amounts to around 25 percent of the total votes polled to the Congress in last parliamentary elections.
The Modi factor
From Chidambaram’s perspective, it was not without reason that he gave a new twist to “Hardvard versus hard work” debate between him and Modi. "My mother and Harvard taught me the value of hard work," the Finance Minister said while presenting the interim budget.
A few days back at a rally in Chennai, Modi had taunted the finance minister saying his Harvard degree had not helped the Indian economy. "The Finance Minister is from Harvard. The Prime Minister is an economist and he too has a degree from a big university. I have hard work to my credit. Going to Harvard means nothing. What matters is hard work... A man who has just studied in an ordinary school, sold tea and has not even seen the doors of Harvard has shown he has what it takes to handle economy," Modi had said.
Chidambaram’s obsession with Modi weighed heavily and on more than one occasion he took a dig at the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate’s credentials of a strong and decisive Hindutava leader.
“I leave it to you to answer the question, who blocked the GST when an agreement on the game-changing tax reform was around the corner?” A little while later Chidambaram quoted Jean Drèze and Amartya Sen, as saying, “India was the first non-Western country – and also the first poor country in the world – to commit itself to a resolutely democratic way of governance”, to take a dig at Modi:
“Democracy acknowledges diversity, respects dissent, encourages debate, and decides through a government of elected representatives. Neither populism nor majoritarianism nor individualism is an alternative way of governance.”
Modi will surely respond to him in due course. But from Congress’s perspective there is hardly anything in Chidambaram's interim budget speech to lift the morale of party workers who have to take on an aggressive BJP and other regional parties on the ground.
One rank one pension applies only to a section of voters. That too is deliverable only by the next government.
Updated Date: Feb 18, 2014 07:54:29 IST