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Minister Antony faces questions

New Delhi, Feb. 26: Admiral D.K. Joshi, who resigned today as chief of naval staff owning moral responsibility for mishaps, had objected to defence minister A.K. Antony’s insinuation in October that the navy was “frittering away national resources”.

More than the allegation, Joshi was stunned by the public airing of a speech that the minister had given to an in-camera naval commanders' conference. This was after the August 14, 2013, explosion and sinking of the INS Sindhurakshak submarine, probably the navy's biggest peacetime loss.

Joshi pointed out in discussions with the minister while submitting his resignation today that “every little thing was blown out of proportion” without “an understanding of what is actually happening just because we do not trumpet what we do”.

The navy has had more sailings since November 2008 — after 26/11 — than it had for 20 years before that.

Joshi is understood to have referred to the number of accidents on the streets of Delhi every day — the national capital arguably has the highest rate of such occurrences — to explain that when a navy is operational, meaning that its ships and submarines are sailing every hour, glitches might occur. He made an exception in the case of the INS Sindhurakshak, a tragedy, he is believed to have said was “of a different magnitude altogether”.

Joshi is the first armed forces’ chief to have resigned from service. In 1998, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat was sacked by then defence minister in the NDA government, George Fernandes. A court later restored all privileges to Bhagwat.

The ripples — if not waves — of Joshi’s resignation are so far limited to the administration. But the community of military servicemen and ex-servicemen is indignant. Even in the particularly volatile times of an election season, many say a service chief would not give up so easily after 40 years of life in the seas.

But that is where Antony faces questions that are answered in a quizzical mix of body language and inadequate vocabulary.

Joshi is understood to have pointed out, for instance, that the first of the Scorpene (French-origin) submarines were to have been delivered by 2012, according to a 2004 contract. But the project is languishing and putting pressure on the navy’s fleet. The INS Sindhuratna, in which the fire broke out this morning, was acquired as far back as 1988.

One of the quietest in the Indian military as a whole, the navy’s “silent” submarine arm has ended creating the cacophony that Antony does not wish to hear. The submarine fleet is down to near single-digit with no new acquisition in 25 years.

Moreover, Joshi wondered how the news of a fire in a compartment of a submarine sailing sub-surface at least 40 nautical miles from the coast in the Arabian Sea could have got leaked to the media by 9.30 this morning. The suspicion is on media of all kinds: social, personal, private and mass.

Could it be that some officer or sailor of an anxious wife/girlfriend sent a message to assure that he was safe? But it is assumed that there is no mobile network in the high seas. A satphone? Feasible, but unlikely. So the message that was relayed to the Western Naval Command operations centre and to the Naval Operations Directorate in New Delhi officially found unofficial channels of dissemination.

The defence ministry has promised to look into it. There may be nothing to see. It may be audible, though.

Antony, now preparing for the elections — he has already said he would not wish to be defence minister again if the UPA came back to power — has held the portfolio for the longest time.

Despite the achievements that he claims — like having acquired the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya (formerly the Gorshkov) — he faces hard questions. It was during Antony’s tenure that a service chief (Gen. V K Singh) dragged the Centre to court. And today, another, has preferred to quit rather than to serve.