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India sinks yet another naval chief

Publication Date : 28-02-2014


For those who track developments in the Indian military, news that its well-regarded navy chief had resigned this week in the wake of a series of operational incidents for which he took "moral responsibility" should come as no surprise.

Admiral D.K. Joshi, who served as Defence Adviser in the Indian High Commission in Singapore in the mid-1990s, was never a man to pass the buck. Nor one who hesitated to speak truth to power.

That an officer so highly decorated for his competence and valour should feel the need to quit on a force that he served brilliantly for four decades speaks of the depths of his frustration at Delhi's bureaucratic durbar and a defence minister so paralysed by fear of scandal that dozens of key military projects have been stalled for months and years.

Worse, it saps the morale of what probably is India's most forward-looking force, rapidly building blue-water capabilities with two aircraft carriers in service and a third under production. For it is the second time in 15 years that a navy chief has left office under controversial circumstances.

Fifteen years ago, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, a man who styled himself after Hyman Rickover, the four-star admiral who fathered the US nuclear submarine programme, was fired after he refused to accept a government nominee, who came with political backing, as his deputy chief of naval staff.

"The government had no choice but to appoint Joshi because he had an excellent service record and impeccable credentials," Adm Bhagwat said on Thursday. "They thought he would fall in line but that did not happen. They wanted a pliant chief."

To be sure, India's navy has had a series of embarrassing accidents in the past year, including the spectacular loss of an expensive Kilo-class submarine in Mumbai when missiles it was loading up for a mission exploded. A newly commissioned landing ship tank blew its propellers after scraping the bottom while approaching the eastern naval port of Vishakhapatnam and on Dec 23 last year, a frigate rammed a fishing vessel. Just two weeks prior, a minesweeper under repair also suffered major damage after an outbreak of fire.

This week, two officers died after a fire on another Kilo-class sub. Several others were airlifted to hospital. The defence ministry led by A.K. Antony, India's defence minister for the past seven years, has been seeking explanations for a while. This week, the questions got louder.

But the answers stare everyone in the face.

For one thing, the force is simply over-deployed. After the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, some of the navy's best ships have been pressed into anti-piracy constabulary duties and coastal defence, normally a coast guard function. This has caused enormous wear on the equipment and impacted on both maintenance and operational training.

By some accounts, the navy has had more sailing since 2008 than in the 20 years prior.

Against that record of overuse, frequently pointed out by the navy, Adm Joshi could perhaps not be faulted for feeling picked upon. What is more, other arms like the Indian Air Force, beset with crashes, have had a worse safety record over the past five years, thanks in part to the non-availability of key spares and long delays in procurement.

In the classic manner of Delhi's bureaucracy, the blame was frequently shifted to the forces.

It is possible too that in the backroom politics of New Delhi, all sorts of pressure was sought to be put on the blunt-spoken navy chief. Three months ago, Antony's criticism of the navy's safety record at a closed-door naval commanders conference found its way to the media. Adm Joshi protested privately then, but did not go public. This week, what prompted his ire, triggering the resignation, seems to have been another leak targeting the navy - news of the fire on the submarine, when it was some 40 nautical miles off the nearest shore and revealed only to top defence officials, reached the electronic media almost in real time.

India's defence minister is often called Saint Antony for his abhorrence of scandal, an attitude that has cleaned up the ministry's image but delayed dozens of key acquisition projects, critically hurting the country's military capability. The army, for instance, is using 30-year-old howitzers and is woefully under-equipped on the China border because Antony blacklisted the firms most eligible to supply new artillery on unproven suspicion that they had offered bribes to defence officials.

Likewise, the navy's Kilo-class submarines are of similar vintage - more modern Scorpene submarines, which had been due to arrive starting 2012, have yet to show up in the fleet. In 2011, General V. K. Singh, the army chief of the time, wrote to the prime minister that the army was "unfit for war".

Against that background, it is not surprising that attention is increasingly focusing on the persona of the defence minister. The word is gaining ground that the man who should really have been forced to leave office is Antony, not the discreet and hugely professional officer who fell on his own sword.

But, for a civilisation that was founded on respect for Truth, and a nation that won its independence through the moral courage of Gandhi and other leaders, India's modern-day leaders have noticeably come up short when it comes to owning moral responsibility in crisis situations.

Even after the Mumbai terror attack that took more than 160 lives, Shivraj Patil, the home minister at the time, made no offer to quit and had to be asked to leave.

Some months before that, when bombs went off in several places in New Delhi, the sartorially inclined Patil had been spotted in three different suits on the same day.

Yet, in 1956, then-Railways Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri resigned after a major rail accident. The act won him so much respect that it helped elevate him to the prime minister's post upon the death of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's founding prime minister, eight years later.

Antony is no Shivraj Patil, of course. But so far, the defence minister, a teetotaller who likes to wear the homespun cotton garb popularised by Mahatma Gandhi, has shown no inclination to follow in the footsteps of the late Shastri either.


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