INS Viraat, the aircraft carrier that weathered many storms and served India with distinction for over three decades finds itself at the centre of an unexpected storm in a teacup.
Two years after the carrier was decommissioned and 31 years after the alleged incident, Prime Minister Narendra Modi fired a broadside from New Delhi that the ship was used as a ‘personal taxi’ for the Gandhi family’s island sojourn in 1987. This has set off a war of words, angry reactions & counter accusations as India heads for the last phase of polls and a likely change of government at the centre.
Former navy chiefs, commanding officers, fleet commanders, down to lowermost formations are trading charges on social media. Serving personnel have either maintained a stoic silence or leaked information on ‘condition of anonymity’.
Sadly, the unlikely victim is the white uniform that has taken another round of mud splash after recent controversy over selection of the next naval chief. Politicization of armed forces has touched a new low in this unsavoury cherry-picking of sordid events from the past.
Whether INS Viraat was indeed used for such purpose, I do not know. In 1988, I was a cadet from ‘Ocean’s Best‘, training to serve on these ships, stars in my eyes.
The aircraft carrier is every naval aviator’s dream. A floating city bristling with fighters, helicopters and the finest set of handpicked crew, it represents the veritable ‘centre of gravity’ of navy. Leveling of such charges by a serving PM, must be a first in history. More’s the pity if the allegations are true.
My limited point here is to use this rather unfortunate event to evoke a more subtle debate on the needless ‘mehman nawazi‘ and ‘khatirdari‘ that goes on in our armed forces. This often happens at the behest of senior officers seeking to impress some guests, foreign nationals or politico-bureaucratic teams.
What lessons can we draw from this alleged episode to change tack and devote our vital energies to holier and more professional pursuits?
What Business Are We IN?
Warships are more than just an aggregation of metal, weapons, sensors and souls. They are floating ambassadors and flag-bearers of the nation. Often, ships find themselves first respondents in areas of crisis or humanitarian disaster (Yemen crisis, Tsunami 2004, Cyclone Fani, etc are examples). Then there are ‘showing the flag’ exercises. With increasing engagement all over the globe, overseas deployment (OSD) and multilateral Malabar, Varuna or Red Flag exercises have become regular inserts in our forces’ operational calendar.
It is a good point in time for armed forces leaders to ask themselves Theodore Levitt’s marketing question “What business are we really IN?”.
Specific to the navy: pardon the pun but beware the tendency to go overboard and turn warships and fighting units into floating centres of ‘hospitality management’.
If at all levels, we ask ourselves Levitt’s question, maybe we can avoid such traps in future. Another benign spin-off would be the better R&R that officers and men can avail, conserving their energy for real exercises & operations at sea or along the borders.
An example. During exchange visits with other navies our ships step-up to ‘Defence Stations’ in the name of security, yet roll out elaborate cuisines for visiting dignitaries that would put Michelin-starred chefs to shame. But when we visit foreign ships, we are received by the ‘duty watch’, offered dignified, austere self-service buffets while rest of the ship’s company utilises the port visit for unwinding from long arduous passages. When you put out to sea, whose batteries will run a full charge is anybody’s guess (read that story here).
Hope things have changed for better in this sphere. Always a good idea to ask “what business are we really in?”.
What Protocols are to be Followed?
Ships play host to many functions, both operational and non-operational. A ‘family day at sea’ is different from hosting the Supreme Commander or Prime Minister. There are different protocols to be followed for special guests. For VVIPs and SPG-protectees, many levels of oversight and security overlays may apply. Not everything is ‘cut & right’. Men (Rajiv, Sonia?) cannot always be separated from boys (Rahul, Priyanka?). It is upto the planners at apex headquarters to ensure there is no scope for misuse or abuse.
For instance, VVIPs and SPG-protectees cannot be flown in single-engine helicopters. But the same rule was breached in another island territory in 1998 in the weeks preceding unceremonious ouster of then naval Chief Adm Vishnu Bhagwat. Although done in good faith to meet an exigency, the issue was raised for mud-slinging in the weeks that followed. Deja vu again?
Another example. When our ship hosted the Vice President of India to dinner one evening, he was accompanied onboard by his wife, daughter and son-in-law who were, of course, extended the same courtesies and hospitality. What choice did the CO have? Could he have made the son-in-law wait at the gangway or decline the guest? Who prepared or vetted the guest list? Who should be blamed if some politician gets a sudden attack of conscience years later?
Incidentally, the honourable Vice President’s wife originally hailed from Burma before they married. She adopted an Indian name and became an Indian citizen. Both were highly respected public figures.
Don’t forget a former President of India whose family-members-in tow for visits abroad became subject of national debate. If such dignitaries turn towards our ships tomorrow, who should take a call on who eats at which table?
In our keenness to impress political masters, if you bend the odd rule, be ready to face the martial music in this world of social media and investigative journalism. Then again, leaders at the national level should set the right example. Often, they don’t.
How Much is Enough?
For those who think this malaise is unique to the navy, I have news for you. Have you had piping hot jalebis and gulab jamuns in an operational post at 10000 feet? Well, I have. Units and formations go to extraordinary lengths to impress visiting dignitaries from other services, parliamentary standing committees, Bollywood stars and even probationary officers from civil services.
Such visits are meant to expose guests to the harsh conditions and ground reality of our troops. Instead, they often end up as an extravaganza of food, drink and entertainment programs, fielded through the sweat and toil of our men who NEVER complain (unlike some leaders who are complaining about events from 1988 now).
Where Are Our Priorities?
I had pointed out in another article (read it here) how our military may be slowly playing into the arms of politicians and their cronies by our over-enthusiasm and penchant for optics. Is it our job to provide colouring books and sketch pens to flood victims? If you want to go overboard, how about walking that extra mile in resurrecting our lop-sided force structure where vintage Seakings land on rooftops and single-engine Alouettes pull off audacious rescues in storms?
I borrow a paragraph from that very story for nostalgia value in the current scenario:
“Every year, teams of civil services probationers, parliamentary teams, ministers and their lapdogs, visit armed forces units, border outposts and frontline warships. These are the powers-that-be who will one day sign-off deals on the dotted line while servicemen watch from the sidelines. The forces are forever rolling out the red carpet for them; sparing no efforts to make them feel like royalty; beating up age-old Chetaks and streaking across the skies with fighters that have no teeth. How about sitting them down and explaining how the numbers weigh against us? How about taking them to hangars and showing them the ‘leaking Seaking’ menstruating small patches of oil & fluid? How about showing them the frayed rescue strops and L1 quality flying boots, two different sizes of which were found on the feet of an aviator who went down in an air crash? Instead, we give them theatrics, T-shirts and sea caps with a 5-course menu.”
Learn From History
So, for all the brouhaha about island vacation, alleged misuse and diversion of national assets, etc. remember to kick yourself. You set it up, blindsided by the wanton desire to impress political lords and bureaucrats who may ultimately plunge the same silver cutlery into your back one day for short term gain.
If you want to avoid such embarrassments, look no further than your own gangway or guard room. Get wiser and more professional. Maintain the dignity of ships, units, formations and squadrons. They are meant for national security, not sojourns under the garb of ‘Island Development Authority Meeting’ or such other events better hosted in star hotels or local administrative facilities.
Throw out the festoons, flower pots and red carpets. Clean up the ships, units and squadrons. It is none of our business.
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal. Picture courtesy Indian Navy’s official website.