Sometimes, organisational drift can become so large that basic virtues and unquestionable codes of conduct require a rude awakening all the way from top (read more about organisational drift from a case study here)
Incumbent Indian naval chief Admiral Karambir Singh has set a gold standard for Indian military by revoking abhorrent, colonial-era practices that had become a pain point across all three services. Through a pan-navy CNS message (known as India General or IG, equivalent of a K-broadcast in IAF), the navy chief has launched a ‘surgical strike’ on needless ceremonials, ‘Sir Culture‘, ‘flower-pot overdrive’, ‘death by PowerPoint’ and ‘chicken tikka diplomacy’ (all my words, but conveys the same message).
Navy-wide messages like the IG issued by Adm KB Singh have a limited validity of three months unless revalidated. If the true essence of his message is followed through with long-term changes, we may be on to something big. If he, and the service he commands, does not walk the talk, it will be yet another failed exercise in lip service or ‘punboat diplomacy’.
Naval terminology has a delightful phrase for this: ‘gangway perfume’ – something that feels good but evanesces soon after you leave the ship’s gangway.
The most salutary offshoot of KB’s message is that it has been selectively leaked to media. An IG is up on full public display, going viral whether KB likes it or not. Now you cannot brush this issue under a ceremonial red carpet or say ‘belay the last’ (navalese for ‘disregard my last order’). The shot has been fired. A ‘nation wants to know’ how we hold up to the chief’s orders.
Many good folks left the service because they couldn’t deal with vernier-calipering size of ‘cocktail samosas‘, mastering napkin-folding or, simply, had wives who were done with having a ‘Fling’.
No, not that fling. In the Indian Navy, ‘Fling’ is an annual event where the fighting arm of the navy – the naval fleet – lets hair down & celebrates their achievements. Somewhere down the line, the script went horribly wrong. It became an exercise in unleashing the fleet commander’s (unspent) dramatic energies; aimed at overwhelming his Commander-in-Chief with the soft power of nautanki. Many Annual Confidential Reports (ACR) can take a virulent turn at this juncture.
Letting hair down? Honest folks lost hair sprucing lighting & decoration, designing seating plans, curating invitation lists and exotic menu cards, etc. Entire ships’ company were diverted to this cause, depriving officers and men of valuable time in harbour to attend to their families.
If a VVIP, minister or dignitary embarked a ship, red carpets – never factored in naval logistics – were managed from here & there. Silverware for senior officials took precedence over greasing the ship’s guns.
Hopefully, idiosyncrasies of the ‘kaju-kismis‘ generation of senior officers is now paving way for meritocracy. Adm KB Singh has rightfully kicked this malaise in the groin. We will soon see where it hurts.
If the ‘silent service’ has set an example, others must follow suit. Army excesses in this department are legion. Star-plated golf carts, special scotch whiskey counters for ‘brigadiers & above’ in social functions, deploying service resources for weddings in ‘general saab’s family’, and discretionary powers abused for personal purpose has ensured slow attrition of what was once a beautiful community called ‘service life’.
Today, dogs & naval officers aren’t allowed into Rajendra Sinhji Army Officers Institute (RSAOI) Bengaluru because few smart alecs (and their progeny) abused this prime space to promote businesses, leeching off the free WiFi or plying civilian associates with fauji daru. As always, the honest and scrupulous pay the price. Internecine turf wars have destroyed bridges of friendship built over decades.
Much of the world is ‘flat’ today. Yet you will find parking spaces reserved for ‘Secretary’, ‘Patron’, ‘PMC’, ‘Sub-Area Commander’, etc outside every military mess or institute. This too must go. It is for the senior lot to ensure fairness in a system which respects everyone’s time without transferring the load onto juniors.
In other parts of the world, infants & differently-abled people get special consideration. In India, why should it be quite the reverse?
The Indian Air Force struggled somewhat in this race to catch up with sister services. They are not as much a ceremonial-intensive organisation as other two services. Theirs is a service where battles are often fought by a single pilot strapped into a fighter cockpit while others play supporting roles. Promotions are slow, coveted and hard to come by. Non-combatants can outnumber ‘living-in’ air warriors in an AF Mess today.
Even so, we had few instructors who passed dictats in Air Force Academy (AFA) that trainees should hug corridor walls and ‘stand-to’ when any instructor passed-by. Most of them sobered out later in life. Some went on to become Air Marshals and earned nicknames like ‘Pudding Ah!luwalia’.
A caution is in order. Adm KB Singh’s carefully scripted and well-meaning ‘IG’ skates on the thin ice of a bloated armed forces where tail (revenue) is wagging the dog (capital). The world is more transparent today than it ever was before. Someone wise said “a lie can travel halfway around the world before truth can get its boots on”.
When we call into question such basic flaws in the system, we should be ready to bleed. Walls built over decades do not come down easily, especially in a disciplined force. But when it does, miracles do happen.
But, what the hell; if anybody can do it, it’s the navy. The naval chief has fired the first salvo. Other chiefs can either tow the line, bring in sweeping changes, or, well, they can play ostrich and savour the ‘pudding’ or ‘kaju-kismis‘. Beware, ‘upar wala sab dekhta hai’ (nothing escapes the ‘big eye in the sky’).
Why delay the inevitable? Why pretend the problem doesn’t exist? You may disallow mobile phones, cameras and pen drives. Every indiscretion is still being recorded in the ‘hard drives’ of those you command. So is every act of astute leadership. Adm KB Singh’s ‘leaked’ IG can be read-across to all arms, services and even the government.
Harder right or the easier wrong? Which model do you want to follow, India?
(Kaypius will continue to monitor developments on this subject. Walk the talk or walk out!)
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2019. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal. Cover photo courtesy www.kaypius.com.