One of the most iconic Indian military leaders of all time, the late Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw once said: “A ‘Yes man’ is a dangerous man. He is a menace. He will go very far. He can become a minister, a secretary or a Field Marshal but he can never become a leader, nor ever be respected. He will be used by his superiors, disliked by his colleagues and despised by his subordinates. So discard the ‘Yes man’.”
This was way before COVID-19 struck planet Earth, new mandates were added to services charter, or top military posts like Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) were created. To this day, above words of Sam Bahadur, as he was fondly known, ring true. It is a timeless message that cuts across generations like a beacon of leadership.
If Sam Bahadur was alive, he would have surely cringed at the parade state today. The three Indian service chiefs along with CDS General Bipin Rawat made a joint appearance for a press conference held in New Delhi on May 1, 2020. Whatever anticipation it managed to evoke was quickly doused with the underwhelming content, mostly delivered as a monologue by CDS Gen Rawat. The other chiefs managed to get in a line or two edgewise.
Here’s a link to the PIB India press release which was shared by PM Narendra Modi with rich accolades on his Twitter handle. To folks from a different military generation, the spectacle must have amused as much as it disappointed. The statements made were largely political in nature. A solitary reference that “the armed forces are fighting COVID-19 according to two principles: Force Preservation and Assistance to Civil Authorities” stood out as the only redeemer conforming to service charter. Everything else was rich in homily and low on substance; a far cry from the stoic stance military leaders at rarefied echelons are expected to maintain.
Now, it is a badly kept secret that upward delegation of tasks and “yes sir” syndrome has pervaded the services at an alarming rate. Tasks that were handled by subedars in the army, warrant officers in the air force or petty officers in the navy are now performed by officers with braided caps. Instead of empowering junior leadership and delegating tasks down to the lowest level, self-aggrandisement and publicity-hunting appears to have become order of the day. The latest press conference sets a new low for this malaise. It also displays a bankruptcy of original ideas and penchant for ‘cut-copy-paste‘.
Consider that even at the height of Kargil War, such a joint presser was neither held, nor deemed necessary. Nobody disputes the lifesaving work done by corona warriors, who are reeling under PPE shortages and even facing violence and ostracism. The nation has, on repeated occasion, expressed collective gratitude to these saviours who deserve our greatest respect. But if four of the seniormost military leaders have to sit on a panel to express solidarity with ‘corona warriors’, announce nationwide flypasts, mountain band performances, flower-petal showering and illumination of warships, who will take the mic when the first shots of a 21st Century war are fired?
Any person who has served in uniform will recall the frequent requests from civil & military agencies, sometimes ill-advised, to “do something” when faced with unplanned exigencies. It takes diligent staff work and rectitude to interpret such requests and deal with them while retaining the dignity of the armed forces. The devil lies in fine details nobody at the macro-level ordering such ‘missions’ will care for.
When faced with a huge refugee crisis and bloodshed in Bangladesh, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi asked Sam Manekshaw to “do something”. Sam did not play jumping jack and say “yes, Ma’am”. Instead, he advised against knee-jerk action, put senior cabinet ministers on the mat with pertinent questions, sought preparation time, even faced prospects of being sacked by Mrs. Gandhi. His unflinching power of conviction earned him a place in history. What followed was a copybook operation that liberated East Pakistan and birthed a new country – Bangladesh.
His epic speech at a military college that recalls this encounter with Mrs Gandhi should be a lesson for those who sit with much brass on their shoulders, but fail to hold fleeting attention, let alone holding territory or winning wars. (you can read it here or watch it here)
Some anecdotes are in order.
Case I (Do something!): A young itinerant Chetak crew from a shore-based flight was embarked on a fleet ship for a theatre-level exercise. ‘Reactionex’ serial was in progress where random, rapid-fire exercises are ordered to test ships’ response and operational readiness. Our ship was ordered to ‘scramble’ Chetak (Alouette III) in ambulance configuration to evacuate a stretcher-borne patient to a ship in company (for exercise only). The Chetak ambulance configuration involves fixing the stretcher between the sliding doors of cabin. The design has no quick-release or facility for underwater egress; neither does the helicopter have emergency floats. The patient is sure to drown if helicopter ditches at sea for any reason. The clock was ticking on us. The ship’s commanding officer (CO) started jumping to the old “do something” tune. I agreed to take a dummy load but not a live human being. 15 minutes later, the Chetak was still to get airborne. Fleet Commander was mighty displeased. Nobody wanted to bell the cat. Ultimately, we got airborne with a dummy load after CO disowned my decision as ‘unilateral’. On return to harbour, I was marched-up to the Fleet Cdr in ceremonial attire. The senior admiral went to great lengths to explain how “millions were being spent on that ‘Tropex’ exercise” versus this young upstart’s adamant stance to stick with the rule book. I politely explained my position. Great leaders always stoop to conquer. We parted with a little more respect for each other. The admiral passed-on in harness while holding top office some years later.
Case II (Going beyond mandate): There was a time when the naval air station at Visakhapatnam (INS Dega) held just one flight of Chetaks (Alouette III). The airfield is surrounded by hills, with Simhachalam Hill to the north-northeast then facing an acute erosion of green cover. The forest department approached district administration with a large-scale afforestation plan using seeds of multiple flora. The district administration in turn turned to the navy. What transpired at the command HQ remains a mystery but soon a number of trucks loaded with huge gunny bags of seeds lined-up outside the flight.
Naval Chetak flights live by the motto “We dare you survive”. An elaborate plan to systematically envelope the entire hill was chalked out by the unit in all earnest. Loaded with 50-kg bags, the first Chetaks soon took to the air. The plan was to fly ‘low and slow’ over the hill. On the pilot’s call, the aircrew diver would open the bag and start emptying its contents onto the hill; that was the plan. There was a small problem nobody foresaw.
Naval Chetaks operating close to sea fly without doors. Soon as the first bag was opened in flight, the cockpit and cabin filled up with dust, flying seeds and dried manure caught in the airflow, almost blinding and choking the crew. Situation was retrieved with great alacrity largely missing at the plans stage. The arithmetic of dealing with tons of seeds at the carrying capacity of a Chetak soon overwhelmed honesty of purpose behind the afforestation drive. We soon realized that the magnitude of task would have consumed half the unit’s annual flying task. A ‘wink wink’ compromise was formulated to save face, machine and crew. Entire 50-kg sealed gunny bags were literally ‘dumped’ over the hill to achieve a purpose not clear to this day. So if you find patches of lush green on Simhachalam Hill with gaping holes in between, blame it on “biting off more than you can chew”.
Case III (“My ship better than yours”): Ships have an annual programme that include, besides operational exercises and training activities, requests from administration for benevolent events or ‘shop window’ exercises. One such activity was visit of local school children to couple of naval ships, meant as a goodwill gesture to improve Civil Military Relations (CMR). A broad outline programme was promulgated by command HQ and passed on to the fleet commander who in turn nominated two ships docked side by side. The two 100-metre missile corvettes were hardly platforms of choice for the event; small, congested & woefully short of resources. To be sure, nobody had categorically told ships to arrange red carpets, colourful pennants, green planters or paint the whole ship. But a “my ship better than yours” competition soon set off. We thought we had it all covered till our sister ship alongside pulled out their ace – a sailor dressed up as a circus clown, complete with make-up, hired costume, gifts and magic wands! My CO almost had a heart attack. ‘EXO Number One’ looked like somebody did a MTV Bakra on him!
Case IV (Civil-Military Relations): This anecdote has been narrated to me by a senior officer who was second-in-command of a triservice command years ago.
“When I took over, there was this slot for flower petal dropping on Independence Day in a display venue that was far from satisfactory. The formation had to descend into a bowl from over a hill and come ‘low and slow’ to drop petals. When I was briefed about this, I directed the staff to follow all regulations which lay down how a display profile must be flown, vertical and horizontal clearances, etc. I also pointed them to a regulation dealing with situation where objects are to be air-dropped for operational reasons. But the District Collector (DC), a young IAS officer, had other plans. He said the display will be undertaken as per orders issued by the district administration and not by us. My staff was told to inform the DC that this compromises safety and we advise against. To our surprise – in what I realised later to be a case of poor CMR between the serving C-in-C and a retired general occupying a political appointment of Lieutenant Governor – the LG was forever trying to prove his protocol status vis-a-vis the C-in-C. Exploiting the gaps, the DC issued a magisterial order to do as he deemed fit. I sent the magisterial order to my service headquarters. Service HQ was asked to refer the matter to MOD. I soon got a call from the Chief Secretary who admitted to the DC being a goon and told me that flypast will be under our command and control.”
Case V (Silent service): The last anecdote pertains to a small, obscure little unit somewhere in south India. With a ships company of less than 20 and meagre resources, this unit managed to raise Rs. 25000 for migrant and daily wage workers during the ongoing COVID-19. The photo uploaded by the navy on their Facebook and Instagram page showed one of the juniormost sailors and a civilian staffer. No brass, no braids. When I wanted to share the post, the Officer Commanding agreed with a polite condition that his name be kept out and mention be made only of the unit and the Indian Navy. It is a heartwarming sign for these times. Many fine young leaders are stepping up to the plate. Nothing is lost. The service is always bigger than the individual. It is no surprise that this officer draws inspiration from an iconic naval chief and even published a well-researched book, duly mentored by another tall leader of our times. I will lose my friendship with both of them if I mention their names; so I won’t. They are the gold standard in what we know as ‘silent service’.
The late Admiral RL Pereira once observed that leadership and credibility are synonymous terms; there cannot be one without the other. In his words, “leadership without credibility is really a whitened sepulchre of pseudo leadership. It has no use, it has no body and really, it doesn’t achieve anything but money in someone’s bl**dy hip pocket; and that’s no damn leadership at all.”
Ronnie, as he is fondly known, also said in the same speech: “If you have the authority, it is absolutely essential that you delegate it because it is not humanly possible to carry all authority in yourself. And by delegating it, you are really establishing confidence in the lower echelons of command.” One wonders how many in harness care for these exalted tenets anymore.
History will record that in 2020, during the height of a global COVID-19 pandemic in India, three service chiefs and the CDS, all 4-star military leaders, sat together on a panel their spokespersons could well have manned, only to announce tactical-level activities like flypast, band displays and ship illumination. Over the next couple of days, flypasts across the length and breadth of the country will be flown by transport and fighter crew with 2-days to prepare after weeks of reduced flying activity due lockdown. Helicopters will overfly silence zones to shower petals while miltary bands will draw crowds nobody wants outside hospital gates during a pandemic. Ships will illuminate and regale affluent audiences locked-up in gilded cages lining Marine Drive in Mumbai or Ramakrishna Beach in Vizag while cops wield the baton on lesser mortals who come out on the streets. Even in the US, from where we seem to have borrowed this ill-conceived idea, social distancing norms were widely flouted when crowds gathered to witness such flypasts.
Some members of the public have raised questions about the cost of such extravaganza at a time when top leadership is vocalising deep cuts in the defence budget. Sadly, the services discontinued ‘operational costing returns’ some time ago. Though specific requests from civil administration are costed and charged to them, many of the planned exercises will be ticked under ‘operational readiness’ and ‘training’ check boxes. So we will never know. Rear Adm Sudhir Pillai, former Flag Officer Naval Aviation wrote on twitter: “Hopefully there is a system of costing such flying and a review as per ‘outcome budget’ principles! An outcome budget aims to measure & control expenses of concerned ministries to introduce discipline in expenditure. Its working is to be inspected after every three months.”
In India, public health needs long-term investment and a total overhaul. Police require reforms which successive governments have brushed under the carpet. Corona warriors require PPE, better wages, working conditions and immunity from protectionist regimes. They do not need empty symbolism. What a three-dimensional military spectacle foisted on them will achieve is beyond sane comprehension. And nobody in authority seem to be complaining.
Beware what we are becoming.
(An edited version of this story was first published by The Quint. You can read it here)
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2020. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views are personal. Cover photo from Indian Air Force’s official Twitter account.