The Congress on Monday announced it would scrap the Agnipath scheme and revert to the Indian Army’s old recruitment system if voted to power in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

The Agnipath scheme involves recruiting citizens between the ages of 17-and-a-half and 21 into the armed forces for only four years, with a provision to retain 25% of them for 15 more years. The scheme’s announcement in June 2022 triggered protests across several states as aspirants demanded permanent recruitment with pension benefits.

On Monday, Congress leaders Pawan Khera, Sachin Pilot and Deepender Hooda expressed the party’s opposition to the scheme at a press conference in Delhi, describing it as a “cost-cutting measure” and calling for it to be withdrawn.

“In the long term, this scheme will not benefit anybody except saving some money for the government of India,” Pilot said. “We in the Congress party feel that we should go back to the old recruitment system.”

Congress National President Mallikarjun Kharge also wrote to President Drouapdi Murmu calling the Agnipath scheme a “gross injustice” done to lakhs of young aspirants seeking regular employment in the Army.

Kharge said he was writing the letter after meeting with young men and women who had been selected to join the Indian Armed Forces but were later “cruelly denied the opportunity to serve the country”.

“Between 2019 and 2022, almost two lakh young men and women were informed that they had been accepted into the three armed services: the Indian Army, the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force,” the Congress leader wrote. “[They] had struggled against all odds to pass gruelling mental, physical tests and a written exam.”

He added: “Until 31 May, 2022, they believed that they had fulfilled their dreams and were awaiting only their joining letters. On that day, their dreams were shattered by the government of India's decision to end this recruitment process and replace it with the Agnipath scheme.”

Kharge’s letter cited former Army Chief MM Naravane’s statement in his memoir that the Army was “taken by surprise” by the government’s proposal to introduce the Agnipath scheme and that for the Indian Navy and the Indian Air Force, “it came like a bolt from the blue”.

Kharge described the Agnipath scheme as a discriminatory one, saying it creates parallel cadres of soldiers expected “to do similar tasks but with very different emoluments, benefits, and prospects”. He also said that the majority of recruits under the scheme will be released into an uncertain job market after four years of service. “Some have argued this could affect social stability,” he wrote.