Naval Chief’s Clarion Call – Gangway Perfume or Cast in Steel?

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 Views are personal. Cover photo courtesy

11 thoughts on “Naval Chief’s Clarion Call – Gangway Perfume or Cast in Steel?

  1. Kips
    Well written
    I was with KB last month in Vizag and I can tell you that he was already practicing what he was preaching in his command and was considered an operational man
    Hope the rest follow his diktat
    Onkar sihota

  2. Well written kps sir, two things have to happen for this IG to influence lives in whites, the service has to embrace it welcomingly and secondly, the next chief must follow through in the same vein.
    A small example, I remember, it was the younger lieutenants who resisted albeit unsuccessfully, my order that uniform cutlery and crockery ( for officers and men) would be used for official functions of the unit.
    A refreshing start by the new chief indeed.

  3. Only a few Generals/ Admirals/ Air Marshals follow such dictum – all because most came up by stooping to sch lows.

    My first instruction to the officers on assuming command of the Regiment were that they will only inform me of issues which they think the CO must be informed and everyone must use the telephone or intercom to communicate with the CO. Many junior officers, to this day, consider this means of communication with the CO as sacrilege. Our Second-in-Command (2IC), who had known me from the Academy days had specifically briefed all officers about this aspect and yet the change was difficult to get going.

    There will be no red or green light in front of my office. Anyone and everyone could walk in and if they see me dealing with anyone else, took their seat on the sofa and wait for their turn. Our 2IC appeared a bit concerned and asked me “Why no red light, especially when you are doing something confidential?” I said “CO does not do anything confidential; whatever the CO does must be known to all. The only time I may need a red light is if and when I watch porn.”

    After a few days into command, our Subedar Major (SM) asked me one morning “You do not want to be received at the office when you come in. In my over 35 years of service I have never seen a CO not wanting to be received when he comes in. It is the duty of the Adjutant and SM to receive the CO at the office.” I reasoned out with him “At the Army Headquarters, even General Officers are not received. They got to carry their own briefcase and lunch box after alighting from their vehicles. I carry nothing to or from office and hence even the Stick Orderly is not required. You and the Adjutant must be busy with your chores early morning, or passing orders to your staff and if you have to leave the office every time the CO arrives, it will not only impede your chain of thought but will also be time wastage for all those awaiting you in the office.”
    Our SM did not appear convinced and hence asked me “How come all my previous COs wanted to be received at the office?” I replied “I am not too sure why they wanted it that way. I am quite confident that I am commanding the Regiment, and I don’t need these props to reassure me about that fact.”

    Here is a blog on my bosses

  4. Yes, the article is a good vocabulary source but it shows us in bad light. If the essence of the IG is true then it infers that all juniors were indeed treated as subjects, hence, all those dramas which have been directed to stay away from are facts. Therefore, all those who gave direct or indirect support should be queried and suitable BoI should be instituted to punish them.

  5. Had a big laugh reading… my familiarity with the Navy started very early, my father was in it. Joined as a Rating WWII, retired as a Commander Elec. Branch.

    To simplify matters we shall use the term Stern Kissers and Stern Kissees. They exist in every walk of life including the Navy, except in the Navy they carry a rank. The entire Navy does not fall into these two categories there are many exceptions. The strange phenomena is that as Stern Kissers go higher in rank they metamorphose into Stern Kissees and newer Stern Kissers take their place. Its a closed loop. It is to credit of the present Chief that he has called a spade a spade…..Gangway perfume perhaps….there’s a stiff wind out there sailor, and it will be up to the Ships Company to keep it on board.

  6. Most Chiefs on assuming charge, dish out such letters. Some midway and some towards end of their tenures, some even after retirement! Unfortunately, the underlying principles are forgotten or diluted with time and ‘business as usual’ resumes. Besides, the letter also gives ammo to all and sundry to take pot shots at the services. One will never find such letters written to babudom or for Cops, among whom the sit is even worse. Good luck to the Navy. I am sceptical.

  7. Honestly when I read the IG, I actually got in hand a good check-off list…I still would be keeping the kajus and cocktail samosas at hand for deploying at immediate notice as there are multiple layers of commands between me and the IG. I would wait for the day when my immediate supervisor would give me an order to in line with the IG. Nevertheless, for personnel within my circle of influence, I would follow the directions from the CHIEF.

  8. Nothing new! Implementation and acceptance by the CinCs downwards upto the Capts is what is to be seen! Sundari wrote an equally eloquent DO to all officers on taking over. But the Sirring and the kaju kishmish red carpet never stopped!!

  9. G’day KP,
    Thank you for an excellent piece well written with a clearly wicked sense of humour. That being said I should mention that I live in New Zealand. As it happens there are a few staff college alumni who tend to keep in touch with India. The signal by Admiral KS seems to have made the news here as well. I was pointed to a copy of your article by a course mate in Houston which I fired off to a few Kiwi Aussie friends with mixed results … I am now trying to translate what nautanki and kajukishmis means …
    You write a good interesting blog. Simple straight forward and you do manage to get to the guts of the issues with an admirable economy in the use of wordage. Well done. The humour helps as well. Keep it up
    Allan Rodrigues IN Retired (42 NDA)
    New Zealand

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