Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi slammed the government on Thursday over the non-implementation of 'one rank one pension (OROP)', drawing a sharp response from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) camp as a full-fledged political war erupted between the warring sides over the scheme.
"The PM should give a date as to when he can bring in OROP. All this protest will end then," Gandhi said at Jantar Mantar in Delhi, where ex-military men are staging a demonstration over their demand. He was the first off the blocks.
"People from armed forces and jawans spend their lives on the border, they are protesting now and they shouldn't be removed," he said, after many of the protesters were forcibly evicted from the site in view of Independence Day preparations.
The Congress leader has not missed out on any opportunity to lash out at the government since his return from a sabbatical earlier this year. Be it the issue of farmers' suicide or the Lalit Modi controversy in Parliament, Gandhi has tried to turn the tables on the BJP-led NDA.
"The government should have thought about the technicalities (of implementing the scheme) before (announcing it)," Gandhi said, a day after marching to the President's House with FTII students protesting against an appointment at their institute.
In reply, defence minister Manohar Parrikar said: "The assurances given by the government will be fulfilled." He also lashed out at the Congress for disruptions in the recently concluded monsoon session, which could not function in the wake of protests by the Opposition over the Lalit Modi row and Vyapam controversy.
As the protests took a political turn, speculation was rife that PM Modi may announce the implementation of the much-delayed scheme for retired armed forces personnel on Saturday, the day India celebrates its 69th Independence Day.
The war of words came after a group of around 50 former servicemen staged a protest to put spotlight on the OROP issue Jantar Mantar. Officials removed one of the two tents where they were camping, reports said.
Ex-servicemen said they would continue with their agitation and were even ready to go jail.
"We are not going to leave Jantar Mantar. Our Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made many promises, but has not fulfilled them. He has just been passing time and nothing else. Now, they (NDA government) are trying to use force on us so that we can leave this agitation. But we will not end our agitation and will stay here even if they send us to the jails. We are ready for everything," said ex-sergeant Ajit Singh, who was one of those protesting at the Jantar Mantar.
Some of the protesters did not seem pleased with a political touch to their campaign as well as Gandhi's visit.
Retd Major General Mohan Singh (74), said: "Rahul Gandhi is welcome to visit our protest but we won't allow politicisation of the OROP issue. We will allow no politician to share this stage."
For his part, Delhi chief minister Kejriwal tweeted: "Ex-servicemen being forcibly thrown out of Jantar Mantar? Bizarre. They protected us till yesterday. Now they are a security threat for Independence Day?"
"Within a year, the NDA has started behaving the way UPA behaved in its second term. This is how UPA-II would crush movements," he said. "I urge the PM to announce (the) acceptance of the demand of OROP of our ex-servicemen from Red Fort tomorrow (Saturday)."
A letter to President
Four former service chiefs had also written to President Pranab Mukherjee recently, asking him to "urgently intervene" in the OROP controversy. They said the delay in rolling out the scheme was a danger to political and military ethos of the country.
Alleging lack of political will, the open letter urged the President to intervene as the Supreme Commander of the forces.
With the implementation of OROP -- which will benefit about 2,500,000 -- personnel who retired over the years will draw the same pension as officers and soldiers of the same rank who retire now. They will also be entitled to a year's back pay in pensions at the new rate.
The NDA government has been facing sharp criticism from associations of retired military personnel and the main opposition Congress for not implementing the OROP scheme.
Its implementation was one of the major poll promises made by the Bharatiya Janata Party in the run-up to the general elections last year.
However, more than a year has passed since he assumed power in May last year the scheme continues to elude ex-servicemen.
The military veterans say they will wait till August 15 and if the government does not honour their demands they will step up their protests by staging more hunger strikes around the country. Social activist Anna Hazare, who is a former army man, has already announced that he will launch an indefinite fast on October 2 in Delhi over the land mill and to press for OROP.