The Modi government’s failure to implement one rank-one pension (OROP) principle in its totality could have significant ramifications on the elections in Punjab, which has 1.5 lakh voters in the armed forces and is undertaking the firstof-its-kind exercise of e-voting for soldiers.
Brig Harwant Singh (retd), national president of All India Defence Brotherhood (AIDB), says they are marshaling soldiers and ex-servicemen to come out in large numbers to defeat the Akali-BJP combine in Punjab. “I am already canvassing in Sangrur, and we are rallying troops across the state,” says Brig Harwant. “Kautilya said that an enemy’s enemy is a potential friend. True to that principle, we will encourage voters to cast their lot with either the Congress or the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), but not with the BJP or its ally,” he adds, claiming that it was “soldier power” that led to state Congress president Capt Amarinder Singh’s win from Amritsar in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
Lt Col SS Sohi (retd), president of the Ex-servicemen Grievances Cell, Punjab, says he has joined forces with the AAP. “Twenty-three organisations of ex-servicemen in Punjab are supporting the AAP,” claims Sohi, who has resigned from the United Front, a body fighting for OROP, to focus on the polls. “The Narendra Modi government has betrayed us. Today even a jawan has to pay tax. And Congress is floundering under Rahul Gandhi. So we thought of trying out the AAP. They are people like us, maybe they will take a stand for the soldiers,” Sohi reasons.
The veterans are sore with the successive state governments for not fulfilling the promises made in their manifestos too. Capt Reet MP Singh (retd), secretary, War Decorated, says he’s stopped reading manifestos. “It’s just a paper, it doesn’t mean a thing,” he growls. Brig Baljit Singh Gill (retd) of War Decorated India fumes that the SAD failed to fulfil its 2012 promise of removing VAT from CSD products.
Congress manifesto’s promise to make ex-servicemen the “guardians of governance” if the party comes to power, however, is igniting some interest. “Capt Amarinder has a soft spot for soldiers. It’s easier to meet him than any other politician,” says Col BS Sohi (retd), adviser to C&C, adding that Amarinder has the mettle to fulfil his promise. “The guardians of governance,” says Amarinder, “will be a group of ex-servicemen from panchayats and blocks to districts, right up to the chief minister. This disciplined force will be used to keeps tabs on the implementation of schemes.”
Amarinder was present at a press conference in New Delhi last month in which Maj Gen Satbir Singh (retd) of Indian Ex-Servicemen Movement (IESM), which has been spearheading the fight for OROP, pledged support to the Congress in all the states going to polls. Later, however, it was clarified that he’d made this statement in his individual capacity.
Citing the low victory margins polled during the 2012 polls, Brig Gill says soldiers could prove to be a swing factor this time. “In 2012, at least 15 seats saw a victory margin of 50 to a few hundred votes. This is where the votes of soldiers, serving or retired, can play an important role.”
Yet, Amarinder is the lone ex-serviceman fielded by Congress. The SAD and AAP fare a little better with two candidates each. While the SAD has fielded former army chief Gen J J Singh (retd) from Patiala against Amarinder, and Tejinder Pal Singh Sidhu, an army captain before joining the civil services, from SAS Nagar, the AAP has nominated Capt Bikramjit Singh Pahuwindia, a Shaurya Chakra awardee, from Khemkaran, and Brig Raj Kumar (retd) from Balachaur. Capt Bikramjit, a former officer on special duty (OSD) to Amarinder, is now in-charge of the AAP ex-servicemen wing.
Col GS Sandhu (retd), chief of Majha Ex-Servicemen Human Rights Front, who had actively campaigned for the Akalis in 2012, is now canvassing for Capt Bikramjit. “We need change. The Congress and SAD-BJP have only been stabbing us in the back,” he says.
Gen JJ Singh (retd), however, claims the ex-servicemen are being misled. “I still think Akalis are the best bet for soldiers in Punjab.”
Regardless of the arguments, it will all boil down to the number of soldiers who actually vote. As Brig Kiran Krishan (retd) of the IESM puts it: “The deeper issue is whether the serving soldiers, who are quite well-informed these days, will actually get to cast their votes.”
Punjab chief electoral officer V K Singh is hopeful that they will. With the Election Commission registering voters in cantonments as per the People’s Representation Act, 1951, which specifies that soldiers and their families can cast their votes at the place of posting, this poll is likely to see brisk voting in the cantonments as well, says VK Singh. He adds that the EC has carried out the process of registering votes in the cantonments of Amritsar, Bathinda, Jalandhar, Ferozepur, and Gurdaspur, though he did not have the exact number as these soldiers have been registered as general voters.
He is optimistic that the voting percentage of soldiers, which is usually 3%, may jump to 70% in the February 4 polls, given the election office’s efforts to proactively encourage postal ballots and introduce e-voting for five constituencies, which include all the four seats of Ludhiana and one of Jalandhar central. Plus, the election office is hoping for a good response to postal ballots as well amid the growing awareness among soldiers about the need to vote.