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WHEN THE RIGHT STARS TAKE TOO LONG TO SHINE

By the time this piece sees the light of the day, one sincerely hopes and prays that the Indian navy will get its new ‘regular’ four-star admiral, instead of the present three star vice-admiral acting as the chief. In fact, this has never happened before for any of the three wings of India’s defence forces — as it has happened for the navy that continues to be headless for more than six weeks now.

Why? All because of a perceived confusion and chaos being woven around the Indian governance system in recent times. And nothing seems to have been worse hit than the Indian armed forces, both in terms of man-management and material ‘mismanagement’. And this, too, happens at a time when Indians are crying themselves hoarse over the Chinese policy of ‘string of pearls’ being set up all around the coastline of India’s neighbourhood; from the Bay of Bengal shoreline of Myanmar to the north-west tip of the Arabian Sea port of Gwadar in Pakistan.

In the history of independent India’s 67 years, this long vacancy at the top has never happened before. There was the packing off of top generals in the aftermath of the disastrous Sino-Indian war, there were the deaths of incumbent chiefs in office, of superseding of the seniormost officer and the resignations in consequence, there was the unceremonious sacking of a chief by the defence minister without any coherent or logical reason, but never was the post of the top office of the armed forces kept under an acting chief for an agonizingly long period of more than three weeks, except once, for 23 days, in 1960.

It would, therefore, be in order today to look into the genesis and tradition of an issue where a sudden and unexpected development like death or sacking results in such a vacancy, although the present case could be likened more to a ‘vacuum’ than to a vacancy. A vacancy is filled up fast. A vacuum is perceived to be of a longer duration, that is, a version of a vacancy that has all the potential to demoralize and depress the soldiers, thereby giving a morale-booster to the adversary.

In a way it can be said to be linked to the psychology of the ‘politics of the higher command appointment’ of the Indian armed forces. It somehow had begun with the post-1947 era perception of the inherent Nehruvian distrust of the Sandhurst-trained Anglicized officer corps of the British Indian army. It, however, seldom struck the mind of the wise of the time that if an Anglicized civilian, Nehru, could be fit to rule the country without any question, why would an Anglicized military top brass be perceived as a potential persona non grata so far as state machinery and the administration thereof were concerned?

Be that as it may, a crisis-like situation occurred with the unexpected demise of the then incumbent (first Indian) air force chief of India, Air Marshal Subroto Mukherjee, in Tokyo, on November 8, 1960. It took the then Indian government 23 days to appoint Aspy Engineer as the successor air chief to Subroto Mukherjee, on December 1, 1960.

Things thereafter went smoothly till July 1, 1985 when the serving Air Chief Marshal L.M. Katre died in office, thereby paving the way for Denis La Fontaine to take over with a gap of only two days when Air Marshal P.P. Singh was the acting chief. One must here give due credit to India’s former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, who showed remarkable agility and alacrity to choose the seniormost officer as the successor to the deceased air chief.

This stood in stark contrast to the decision of his mother, Indira Gandhi, to supersede S.K. Sinha, who, being the seniormost, should have been the army chief on July 31, 1983 following the retirement of K.V.K. Rao. Nevertheless, the important point was that there was no scope for having any acting chief in either of the cases.

Perhaps the most unethical and blatant bias in the matter of the appointment of a service chief was displayed by a caretaker (should one say ‘acting’) government under Chandra Sekhar when Air Chief Marshal S.K. (also known as Polly) Mehra retired on July 31, 1991. Although P.V. Narasimha Rao’s government had assumed office in June 1991, the caretaker government had announced the name of the successor of S.K. Mehra on April 30, 1991, in spite of the fact that the ‘announced successor’, too, would have had retired on July 31, 1991, along with his air chief.

Interestingly, Mehra’s successor, strictly speaking, should have got at least a one-day extension to be eligible to succeed as the chief. But that did not happen because of alleged ‘village ties’ and golf which deprived, as agreed by all and sundry, one of the ace fighters and test pilots from taking the Indian air force to a higher plane of professionalism in the midst of severe ‘supply and logistics hardship’.

The Indian air force, from all accounts, could not recover its elan for a considerable period as its chief source of combat assets, too, dried up owing to the demise of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

In November, 1994, when the former army chief, B.C. Joshi, died unexpectedly, the ministry of defence took less than three days to announce the name of the successor-chief, thereby denying leeway to an ‘acting’ chief. Again, when the then defence minister of India, in his wisdom, decided to abort the tenure of the serving naval chief, and have a fresh face in place, on December 30, 1998, the transition was too smooth and electric to give any ‘acting chief’ a chance to be there. Not a single second was wasted on the ‘hand over/take over’ formality.

Whatever may be the merit or demerit of the action of the government of the day, there was no hesitation in deciding quick and fast. Procrastination was conspicuous by its absence.

The year, 2014, however, takes the cake. An aspiring blue water navy of New Delhi, the foundation of which had been laid by Indira Gandhi in the mid-1960s, seems rudderless. A navy chief has resigned without giving any notice; either to his men or to his minister. Fine. So what? Did death of an army or air force chief take place after giving prior intimation to the establishment? Or, when a navy chief was given marching orders in a matter of few hours, did the vacancy take days to be filled up?

So why this gross negligence of, or indifference to, the appointment of a regular, full time naval chief in spite of the lapse of more than six weeks? What message is the government of India sending to its sailors and their captains operating in hazardous conditions? That there is no competent or experienced officer fit enough to hold the post of a four star admiral? Are we back to the days of the British raj, when Indians were considered ‘unfit to command’?

Although it would never be conceded publicly by either a serving or a retired sailor or soldier, this author is compelled to state that someone from the establishment may kindly find out what kind of demoralization has set in in the psyche of the serving men in the line of duty. Nevertheless, one thing is certain. Whosoever is the choice of the government of India to be the naval chief now, there is bound to be turbulence. Seniority or no seniority, this procrastination by the government of India has messed up an appointment created by a sudden vacancy.