Navy crisis was allowed to boil over. Defence minister left it too late to make a new beginning.
Admiral D.K. Joshi’s resignation as the chief of the Indian navy on Wednesday capped an extended sequence of incidents featuring the navy’s frontline warships and submarines, beginning with the explosions in the torpedo compartment that sank the INS Sindhurakshak in August last year and killed 18 sailors. Wednesday’s incident on board the Kilo-class submarine INS Sindhuratna resulted in the death of two officers and injuries to other personnel.
These incidents or accidents — a minesweeper catching fire, a patrolboat firing at naval docks, a frigate colliding with a fishing vessel, submarines and warships running aground or colliding — occurred on Joshi’s watch. It is only in the fitness of things that he has put in his papers. His tenure was overshadowed not only by the navy’s safety record but also the manner in which these incidents were handled.
The very number and frequency of such incidents and the navy’s manner of dealing with them — there were allegations of naval headquarters withholding information from civilian counterparts — were warning signals that the Union ministry of defence (MoD) ignored. While Defence Minister A.K. Antony did ask the navy to clean up its act and ensure that assets were “not frittered away”, that warning came in late-November, more than three months after the mainstay Kilo-class submarine, the Sindhurakshak, was lost.
Joshi responded by claiming the navy’s safety record was “not all that bad”. And the drift continued, unchecked. The overall impact has been to put back by several years the emergence of the navy as a genuine blue-water force and jeopardise the protection of India’s 7,000 kilometre-plus coastline. In fact, the mismanagement of the navy could be said to mirror the MoD’s mishandling of the army. There, a government that was indifferent or weak or both had allowed distrust to escalate to a disquieting level. As reported in this newspaper two years ago and confirmed a few days ago by former DGMO A.K. Choudhary, the highest echelons of government were seized by panic over controversial troop movements in January 2012. Yet, crucial questions about that troubling episode in the vital civil-military relationship have remained unaddressed, the official denial and evasion continues.
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Antony bequeaths an unenviable legacy to the next defence minister. His has been a tenure defined by inaction at best and poor judgement in fact. The next government must urgently repair the damage wreaked in the UPA’s tenure on the internal vitality of the defence forces and on the civil-military relationship.