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Who will be India's next Naval Chief?

Last updated on: February 28, 2014 12:37 IST

Had Admiral D K Joshi completed his tenure, then Vice Admiral Satish Soni, currently Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Navy's smallest command, the Southern Naval Command, would have taken over as the next Chief of Naval Staff.

After Admiral Joshi's abrupt departure, three officers senior to Vice Admiral Soni have become eligible to head the Navy. R S Chauhan reports on the lobbying underway to replace Admiral Joshi.

Within hours of Admiral D K Joshi stepping down as India's Chief of Naval Staff on Wednesday evening, jockeying for the top post among the next three senior-most naval officers began in earnest, highly placed sources in the government have revealed.

Even before the ink could dry on Admiral Joshi's resignation letter, competing lobbyists -- a potent mix of political wheeler-dealers, former top-ranking naval officers, arms agents and sections of the media -- immediately got into the act, pushing the case of their respective 'candidate' as the best suited to become the next Chief of Naval Staff.

So reports for or against the three top contenders for the post -- either extolling their virtues or raking up their past records and perceived sins of commission and omission -- started appearing in leading media outlets.

Furious behind-the-scenes lobbying on ethnic lines began. The old boys' network went into an overdrive as bets began to be placed on the next naval chief.

The intense activity is understandable since at stake is the Indian Navy's planned rapid expansion and consequently contracts worth over $10 billion to be signed over the next five years for naval acquisitions.

In some cases, the top three contenders may not be aware that their case is being pushed vigorously by professional lobbyists.

Admiral Joshi was to have served as the CNS till July 2015. Had he completed his tenure, then Vice Admiral Satish Soni, currently Commander-in-Chief of the Navy's smallest command, the Southern Naval Command, would have taken over as the next CNS.

After Admiral Joshi's (left) sudden departure, three other officers senior to Vice Admiral Soni have become eligible for the CNS post.

Although the government appointed Vice Admiral Robin Dhowan as the acting CNS -- simply because he was the Vice Chief of Naval Staff -- he is not the senior-most naval officer at the moment.

That officer is Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha, currently C-in-C, Western Naval Command, the Indian Navy's sword arm, with its headquarters in Mumbai.

Vice Admiral Dhowan is next in line. The third senior-most is Vice Admiral Anil Chopra, C-in-C at the Vizag-based Eastern Naval Command.

All three vice admirals -- Sinha, Dhowan and Chopra -- are scheduled to retire in the next year. Vice Admiral Dhowan is three months away from retirement (May 31). Vice Admiral Sinha would retire in August and Vice Admiral Chopra in March next year.

Technically, the Cabinet Committee on Security, which meets on Friday, is free to choose anyone from the four -- Vice Admirals Sinha, Dhowan, Chopra and Soni -- as the next naval chief.

The only catch is that Vice Admiral Dhowan among the four has not commanded a command, normally a pre-requisite to head a service.

Defence analysts have speculated on the strengths and weaknesses of all four contenders, but Defence Minister A K Antony, under pressure for his insipid leadership in the defence ministry, may stick to convention and choose the senior-most admiral to head the navy when it is faced with a crisis of confidence.

If he does that and chooses Vice Admiral Sinha, Antony will face criticism since two of the Indian Navy's biggest accidents in recent times -- the sinking of the INS Sindhurakshak last August and Wednesday's accident on the INS Sindhuratna -- both occurred in the Western Naval Command.

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Image: Indian Navy flotilla including aircraft carrier INS Viraat escorting INS Vikramaditya on its way home

Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

R S Chauhan in New Delhi