Indian Navy Chief DK Joshi resigns; should Minister Antony have gone instead?

 
In this handout photograph released by the Ministry of Defence, Chief for Indian Naval Staff Admiral D.K. Joshi (left) briefs Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony (centre) at the scene as Indian Navy personnel work at the conning tower of the stricken INS Sindhurakshak, after the submarine sank following an explosion at the naval dockyard in Mumbai. Admiral Joshi resigned February 26, 2014 after a submarine accident off the coast of Mumbai saw two sailors missing and another seven injured, the defence ministry said. -- PHOTO: AFP

THOSE who know Admiral DK Joshi well are familiar with his style; laid-back, affable, gregarious, but, in service matters, uncompromising in matters of discipline and personal integrity. Throughout his service life he also carried a refreshing candour that made fellow military men wonder how he managed to steadily climb the ranks when he could so easily speak truth to power. 

Indeed, he was precisely the sort of man that India's politicians, who thrive on the bent knees and corrupt ways of the bureaucratic-military establishment, would always detest and be wary about.

Always, his reputation as a professional won the day with his superiors even as his peers enjoyed a personality who carried little personal malice and never believed in one-upmanship

So, it was with little surprise that I received news of his decision to quit office-- more than a year ahead of his scheduled retirement-- taking moral responsibility for a series of accidents involving Indian naval ships and submarines, the latest of which was a fire that broke out yesterday on board a submarine doing sea trials after a refit in Mumbai.

In fact, over a game at the Delhi Golf Club in December, I had picked up enough hints about 'Joe's' rising frustration with the defence ministry bureaucracy, led by Defence Minister AK Antony, who has held the post for seven years. As anybody with a minimum knowledge of India's military knows, the forces, under Mr Antony, have been denied badly needed weapons and equipment.

The Indian Air Force's bid to buy 126 multirole combat aircraft has been mired in red tape, the army is using three-decades old howitzers and is woefully ill-equipped on the China border because Antony blacklisted the firms most eligible to supply the mortars-- on suspicion that they had paid bribes.

The naval submarine fleet is a quarter century old and many of its best warships are springing leaks because they are being pressed into coastal defence, a job ordinarily for the Coast Guard. That deprives the vessels of essential maintenance and the men lose valuable time needed for operational training.

Against that background, it was inevitable that accidents involving equipment malfunctions and poor judgment by officers would manifest. In the classic fashion of New Delhi's bureaucratic durbar, the defence ministry tried to shift the blame to the navy. At a military commanders conference three months ago, Mr Antony directly criticised the navy. Adm Joshi protested, but did not press the issue.

This time, he chose to leave office before anyone could say anything.

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 been noticeably short in owning moral responsibility in crisis situations.

In 1964, 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.

Already the word is gaining ground that the man who should really have been forced to leave office is Mr Antony, the minister, not the discreet and hugely professional officer who fell on his own sword.

Now that he has resigned in the finest traditions of the force and turned into a bigger national hero than he already was, Adm Joshi will be an attractive catch for opposition parties, including the Hindu nationalist BJP.

It is unlikely that Joe will oblige them. Instead, he may just sail into the sunset with the hint of a twinkle in his seafaring eyes.