Is It Time For The NDA Government To Revisit The Agnipath Scheme?

BJP’s tally in the 2024 election might have been hit in areas where the Agniveer scheme was facing heat

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Indian Army and Air Force aspirants protesting against the launch of Agnipath (Agniveer) Scheme during a protest called by Ex-Servicemen Dept by AICC at Jantar Mantar, on January 11, 2024 in New Delhi, India Photo: Getty Images

In what is appearing to be the first sign of how Narendra Modi’s third term will be different, Janata Dal United and the Lok Jan Shakti Party – two important allies of the BJP in the NDA government – have publicly demanded a review of the Centre’s Agnipath scheme for recruitment in the armed forces, which was launched in 2022. 

The saffron party, which couldn’t garner a majority on its own in the recently-concluded Lok Sabha elections, had to depend on its NDA allies to form the government – signalling a return to the coalition politics era. Apart from keeping in mind the interests of its allies while allotting portfolios, Narendra Modi-led BJP will have to take different views on board while making policies, something that the party didn’t need to before when it crossed the majority mark on its own. 

Its first roadblock came with the JD(U) spokesperson’s remarks. While assuring the BJP of its ‘unconditional support’,  spokesperson KC Tyagi wanted ‘shortcomings’ in the Agnipath scheme to be discussed. “A section of voters have been upset over the Agniveer scheme. Our party wants those shortcomings which have been questioned by the public to be discussed in detail and removed…On UCC, as the national president of the party, CM had written to the Law Commission chief. We are not against it but a solution should be found by talking to all stakeholders,” he told News18.

Meanwhile, Chirag Paswan of LJP,  which won all the five seats it contested in Bihar, told NDTV that his party is also in favour of a relook at the scheme. 

What is the Agnipath scheme?

The Agnipath scheme was launched by the government of India in 2022 to recruit youth between the age bracket of 17-and-half years to 21 as soldiers, below the rank of commissioned officers, into the three services of armed forces. The Agniveers – soldiers – would be recruited for a short period of four years, and 25 per cent of the recruits would be given permanent commission to continue for 15 more years.

Why has the scheme received pushback?

Days after the scheme was launched, protests rocked several cities of the country. Disgruntled army aspirants and former top defence officials were worried about where the demobilised Agniveers would go after four years as only 25 per cent would be re-inducted into the armed forces. 

They pointed out how reforms came at a time when the country was battling severe unemployment that was made worse by the Covid-19 pandemic, and yet, millions of aspirants worried that they would be considered too old to apply for jobs in the army.  Moreover, unlike soldiers in regular service, Agniveers will not be able to avail pensions post-retirement, which was also one of the main points of contention. 

In July 2022, Outlook spoke to Patna-based Army aspirant Michael, who questioned the Agnipath scheme’s benefits. “Is Rs 11 lakh enough to take care of my family of six for the rest of my life? Serving the Army is a mat­­­ter of dignity. What will I do after four years—become a security guard?” Michael asked.

Opposition parties including the Congress, capitalised on this angst during the recent general election. The grand old party in its manifesto promised to scrap the Agnipath scheme and ensure a return to the earlier recruitment processes followed by the Army, Navy and Air Force that it says will guarantee economic and social security for our soldiers, if elected to power at the centre. Apart from Congress, other opposition parties like the AAP, RJD, and Samajwadi Party have also called for the scheme to be scrapped.

Will the Modi-led NDA government rethink the scheme?

Even before the elections, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had said on 28 March that the government was open to reviewing the scheme.

After the formation of the new NDA government, a group of secretaries from 10 significant ministries have been tasked to review the Agnipath scheme and have been told to suggest ways to make the recruitment scheme more lucrative for youngsters, according to a report by Economic Times. They are likely to give a final presentation to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the same day after he returns from the G7 Summit being held in Italy, the report said.

BJP’s tally in the 2024 election might have been hit in areas where the Agniveer scheme was facing heat. In Bihar, Outlook earlier reported on how while Ram temple was a non-issue, one scheme that touched the raw nerve was the Agniveer issue with many of them still angry on the polling day. 

Knowing the possible fallout of the scheme's continuation, especially in its present form, the question of the moment is whether the NDA will scrap the scheme completely or retain it with changes.