Has India’s Military Recruitment Plan Backfired?

The Agnipath plan has triggered protests among potential soldiers and criticism from veterans, but it’s not likely to dent Modi’s government.

Ganguly-Sumit-foreign-policy-columnist8
Ganguly-Sumit-foreign-policy-columnist8
Sumit Ganguly
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
Members of the Student Federation of India push against a police barrier during a protest against the government's new Agnipath recruitment plan in Chennai, India, on June 22.
Members of the Student Federation of India push against a police barrier during a protest against the government's new Agnipath recruitment plan in Chennai, India, on June 22.
Members of the Student Federation of India push against a police barrier during a protest against the government's new Agnipath recruitment plan in Chennai, India, on June 22. ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty Images

Indian leaders, regardless of political stripe, have long grappled with two critical public policy issues. First, despite steady economic growth since the early 1990s, India has struggled to tackle endemic unemployment. The country has a large pool of employable young people, but it cannot reap the benefits of this so-called demographic dividend without creating sufficient jobs. Second, governments are burdened with the military establishment’s pension obligations: Nearly 30 percent of India’s defense budget goes toward pensions.

In theory, the recently announced Agnipath (literally, “path of fire”) military recruitment plan helps with both problems. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government aims to create 45,000 to 50,000 military jobs for recruits between the ages of 17 and a half and 23—but mostly for short-term commissions. The plan has prompted mass protests across India, some violent. Most of those protesting—led by young men, although the Agnipath plan is open to both men and women—are targets for military recruitment who feel cheated that the new plan may in fact diminish their long-term employment prospects in the military. A plan the government claims would help boost the military could likely harm it instead.

The proposed terms of the Agnipath plan may not appeal to many potential soldiers. Under the plan, recruits will receive six months of intensive military training and will be expected to serve for another three and a half years. Of those recruits, only 25 percent will be retained, based on performance. Those selected for long-term commissions can serve for another 15 years and will receive pensions and benefits commensurate with their final ranks. The remaining 75 percent will not receive a pension; instead, they will receive a single payment of around $15,000.

Indian leaders, regardless of political stripe, have long grappled with two critical public policy issues. First, despite steady economic growth since the early 1990s, India has struggled to tackle endemic unemployment. The country has a large pool of employable young people, but it cannot reap the benefits of this so-called demographic dividend without creating sufficient jobs. Second, governments are burdened with the military establishment’s pension obligations: Nearly 30 percent of India’s defense budget goes toward pensions.

In theory, the recently announced Agnipath (literally, “path of fire”) military recruitment plan helps with both problems. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government aims to create 45,000 to 50,000 military jobs for recruits between the ages of 17 and a half and 23—but mostly for short-term commissions. The plan has prompted mass protests across India, some violent. Most of those protesting—led by young men, although the Agnipath plan is open to both men and women—are targets for military recruitment who feel cheated that the new plan may in fact diminish their long-term employment prospects in the military. A plan the government claims would help boost the military could likely harm it instead.

The proposed terms of the Agnipath plan may not appeal to many potential soldiers. Under the plan, recruits will receive six months of intensive military training and will be expected to serve for another three and a half years. Of those recruits, only 25 percent will be retained, based on performance. Those selected for long-term commissions can serve for another 15 years and will receive pensions and benefits commensurate with their final ranks. The remaining 75 percent will not receive a pension; instead, they will receive a single payment of around $15,000.

The frustration is understandable. In India, government jobs, including those in the military, are prized for the security and pension guarantees they offer, especially among those with a limited education. As a result, the Indian military has never had an issue with recruiting for rank-and-file positions, especially in the army. Unless honorably discharged, recruits could previously count on long service with a guaranteed pension. But the Agnipath plan dramatically limits long-term job prospects and offers only limited benefits after four years of military service. The recruits not selected for long-term commissions will return to the job market after their service with few employment opportunities and limited transferable skills. Nonetheless, as of Monday, the recruitment plan had received 94,000 applications to fill 3,000 vacancies.

The Agnipath plan has also received compelling criticism from retired personnel from all three branches of India’s military. Many veterans argue the plan will do little to foster unit cohesion, as short-term recruits—making up a distinct class within each military branch—will have limited opportunity to bond with fellow soldiers. Relatedly, many retired senior officers say short-term commissions aren’t enough to instill the mores the Indian military has established over the decades; it’s also unclear if the six-month training period will equip the recruits with adequate military skills. Furthermore, some veterans fear that returning thousands of men with limited arms training to the civilian labor pool is a recipe for social discord. They may become mercenaries, turn to criminality, or resort to violence as they face frustration on the job market.

None of these concerns are trivial, but some Indian government officials have shown a cavalier attitude toward the protests and even toward veterans’ misgivings. One prominent member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said he would consider hiring those released from the military as security guards in party offices. Similarly, Anand Mahindra, one of India’s most prominent industrialists, offered to hire short-term military personnel who had left service. However, the current track record of major Indian firms hiring rank-and-file retired military personnel is hardly exemplary. It’s unlikely that large numbers of former recruits will find gainful employment as their commissions come to an end.

However, the opposition to this plan won’t seriously damage the Modi government. Despite its botched demonetization program in 2016, the clumsy rollout of a goods and services tax in 2017, and the shambolic handling of the COVID-19 crisis last year, the ruling party has shrugged off both protests and criticism easily—in part because of the absence of a viable political opposition. Although the BJP’s popularity may take a hit in states that are major military recruiting grounds, it’s hard to envision a sustained, nationwide backlash. For now, the government has made some minor concessions to the protesters. But unless they can mount an effort on the scale of the Indian farmers’ protests last year, which eventually resulted in controversial agricultural laws being repealed, further government action isn’t likely.

The twin challenges the Modi government faces are difficult to solve, but the path it has chosen to pursue hardly amounts to a genuine panacea. In its present form, the Agnipath plan will have a minor impact on unemployment. Although it ultimately may reduce pension costs, it is also likely to exact a toll on the morale, fighting skills, and military readiness of India’s armed forces.

Sumit Ganguly is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. He is a distinguished professor of political science and the Rabindranath Tagore chair in Indian cultures and civilizations at Indiana University Bloomington.

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