Shorn of its high-flown rhetoric and grand-sounding convictions, a manifesto is simply a set of promises a political party makes to the electorate, hoping to secure its vote. In that sense, it’s a political compact. Put a shade more crudely, it’s a deal or a bargain. Which is why most people accept that manifestos can get away with almost any promise and few people worry about their character, range or practicality. In fact, most doubt such promises will be implemented and, thus, tend to ignore manifestos altogether. And that includes politicians. Mayawati, for instance, doesn’t bother with a ‘manifesto’.
The BJP manifesto, however, has made a few commitments that deserve serious attention. At first sight they’re novel and enticing. They could make a substantial difference. But dig a little deeper and you might find they are also disturbing. They raise questions of principle that the party does not seem to have addressed.
I’m talking of the following promise: “all personnel of the Army, Air Force and Navy, as also paramilitary forces, will be exempt from paying income tax on their salaries and perquisites”. Alongside the badly-needed commitment to one-rank-one-pension, a separate Pay Commission for the services and incentive-based steps to make a career in the defence forces more exciting as a way of overcoming the officer shortfall — which I, for one, endorse and applaud — this will be widely welcomed by all serving soldiers and several retired ones. For many it could determine how they vote.
But is this particular promise justified? As far as I can tell no one seems to be asking that question. Let me raise a series of issues and then leave you to come to your own conclusion.
First, on what grounds should the defence and paramilitary services be treated as a unique category of the population to be exempted from income tax? If you argue that they perform a special function that calls for special tax treatment, what about doctors or nurses or teachers? If you anchor it to the fact that they risk their lives to protect ours, then the truth is that’s not the case right through their career. So, should tax only be exempt when they’re at war or fighting insurgency?
Second, in a poor democracy like India, where it’s said that 80 per cent of the people live on 20 rupees a day, it’s an article of faith that those who can afford to pay a fair tax have a moral duty to do so. You could argue that the famous slogan from the American War of Independence — ‘no taxation without representation’ — applies the other way around as well. Therefore, should any section of the people be deliberately excused from this moral duty?
Third, is it fitting that generals who earn Rs 60,000 a month or more, with access to DID rations and supplies at special prices, be exempt from tax whilst civilians who earn Rs 30,000 and have to buy food and supplies at market prices be required to pay tax?
Fourth, if soldiers and paramilitary personnel are exempt from tax then why not policemen? After all, they are the first line of security and the guardians of law and order for the ordinary citizen. Is it right to exclude them? Police officers are bound to say no.
However, my concern with the BJP’s promise to exempt all defence and paramilitary personnel from income tax goes beyond such issues of principle. I’m also worried about its consequences.
If implemented, might this not provoke a measure of resentment against its beneficiaries? So far — and with justification — our soldiers are held in enormous esteem by every Indian. Indeed, the Army is particularly beloved. But might that not be diluted by jealousy or resentment of unfair favours?
It’s not for me to advise the defence services, yet, if in their position, I would politely but firmly refuse this offer. Soldiers, I believe, should never accept discrimination — neither against themselves nor in their favour. As true Indians, they stand with the rest of us in support of justice and fair play.