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Mariner departs, minister spectator

Devendra Kumar Joshi

New Delhi, Feb. 27: The admiral came in civvies to say “Shano Varuna” this morning. The naval ensign did not adorn the bonnet of his black Ambassador any more.

As Devendra Kumar Joshi drove off from South Block for the last time, he left in his wake a turbulence stirred by defence minister A.K. Antony.

Shano Varuna” — may the Lord of the Seas be auspicious to us — is the naval motto and also a greeting.

Joshi told his principal staff officers, the vice-chief and now interim chief, Vice-Admiral Robin Dhowan, and other flag officers that he had consulted no one but his wife before submitting his resignation to Antony yesterday.

He repeated what he had told his colleagues at the naval headquarters here in an IG (India General) message to the service. In South Block, he read out the resignation letter he had submitted to the defence minister.

He said it was his duty to report to his colleagues since he had consulted none when he walked into Antony’s office with the letter in his hand on Wednesday afternoon, shortly after the deaths of two officers on board the INS Sindhuratna had been confirmed.

Joshi told his colleagues they were doing a good job in trying circumstances.

Antony and the bureaucrats in the defence ministry do not agree. Their prompt acceptance of Joshi’s resignation was evidence of that. But Antony did say this morning that Joshi “is a fine human being and a good admiral, but he was determined to resign with immediate effect”.

As the old sea dog drove down Raisina Hill, an officer who had served under him in several tenures remarked: “This should not have happened; things will get worse now.”

Antony said he had consulted the Prime Minister and the President before sending to the admiral the acceptance of his resignation.

“I consulted everybody. I met the Prime Minister also. Ultimately, we took a decision to accept the resignation,” PTI quoted the minister as saying.

In 2005, when the then chief of naval staff, Admiral Arun Prakash, had offered his resignation after a relative of his was linked to a naval war-room scam, defence minister Pranab Mukherjee had refused to accept it. Admiral Prakash served till the end of his tenure on October 31, 2006.

Antony has failed where Mukherjee had succeeded, whether by design or by default. The navy is set to pay the price of his failure.

Not only is the navy convinced that there will be more accidents because its equipment are outdated, it is also certain that the next chief will have to take a call on his career after every such mishap. It is not certain yet who the next chief will be.

Joshi has quit 17 months before his scheduled retirement in August 2015. Navy chiefs have usually had tenures lasting three years. They retire at 62. Had Joshi continued, it was accepted that Vice-Admiral Satish Soni, currently flag officer commanding-in-chief (FOC-in-C), South, would have taken over as the next chief.

Soni is now just one of four officers in contention for the job. Even with its perks, privileges and power, the office of the chief of naval staff is here onwards a hot seat.

Although Dhowan is vice-chief and interim chief, he lacks the experience of being FOC-in-C. He is also junior to Vice-Admiral Shekhar Sinha, FOC-in-C, West, under whose charge most naval mishaps in recent months have taken place.

But Dhowan is older and is set to retire on May 31 this year unless he is confirmed as the chief and gets an extension of two years. That would make him supersede Sinha, who is scheduled to retire in August this year, with the possibility that the western naval chief would resign. That, in turn, will spark another chain of events.

The fourth officer in the running is Vice-Admiral Anil Chopra, FOC-in-C, East (Visakhapatnam).

Vice-admirals retire at the age of 60. A service chief-designate is normally announced 60 days before the appointment. By resigning on Wednesday and demanding to be relieved immediately, Admiral Joshi has denied Antony and the appointments committee of cabinet that luxury.

The practice of tinkering with senior-level appointments — which is suspected to have been behind the row over former army chief V.K. Singh’s date-of-birth dispute — is set for a replay in another force.

At the end of his tenure as defence minister, Antony has upset the military hierarchy, laid a minefield for ego clashes and, worse, twisted the chain of command.