August 16, 2002


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The nuclear possibility

Admiral (retired) J G Nadkarni

A question of accountability

Admiral Hyman Rickover is generally regarded as the 'Father of the US Navy's nuclear programme.' In 1949 he was made in charge of the nuclear programme, which he successfully oversaw for the next 33 years, finally retiring after 62 years of service.

The admiral was a fanatic for hard work and efficiency and did not suffer fools gladly. On his desk he had a large plaque on which were inscribed the following words: 'Don't waste my time. Give your excuse by numbers.' Below this were listed the ten most common excuses, from 'I did not know' to 'I thought someone else was supposed to do it.'

The admiral is no longer alive. Were he to be present today he would have gladly added the most ingenuous excuses totted out by India's petroleum minister for the petrol pump allocations scam or what is now becoming known as 'Petrolgate.'

The honourable minister first decided to tough it out by denying that there was any wrongdoing in the first place. Unfortunately for him, the prime minister cut the ground beneath him by canceling the entire allocation, obviously because there was something wrong. At this stage the minister changed track. He had done his best to see fair play by appointing retired high court judges to the Dealer Selection Boards, so what could he do if they bungled. And then the final gem of irresponsibility. When some judges went public with their tales of direct interference from the top he said he 'cannot be held responsible for what his subordinates do.'

Lost somewhere in the dust kicked up after the scandal were two important issues, accountability and conflict of interest.

Our elected leaders do not seem overly familiar with the word accountability. A dictator is accountable to no one, but in a democracy an elected leader is fully accountable for his deeds and misdeeds, for his action and lack of it, for his achievements and failures to the people. Three words, authority, responsibility and accountability always go together. A leader is accountable for the responsibility of those in his or her charge. Accountability is the standard against which responsibility is measured. Accountability is the quantitative equivalent of an individual's willingness to be at risk.

To compensate for the risks he takes, authority is normally sweetened with privileges. Our politicians certainly understand authority, that's why there is always a scramble to be a minister. They are more than conscious of the privileges which go with authority. Alas, their understanding stops there. Not many will take their responsibilities seriously. And of course, forget about accountability.

The man at the top must be held accountable for both the success as well as the failure of his subordinates. Ironically, the petroleum minister's appearance on television was immediately followed by those of the minister for sports basking in the performance of India's athletes at the Commonwealth Games. Those with long memories remembered that officials were nowhere to be seen after India's disastrous performance at the Sydney Olympics.

The elders may learn a few things from the armed forces about responsibility and accountability. Nowhere is the principle of 'the buck stops here' applied more vigorously than in the armed forces. There is general uniformity in this matter all over the world. It is the prime principle of command. As a famous admiral once said, 'Accountability is not for the intention, but for the deed -- the captain of a ship, like the captain of a state, is given honour, and trust, and privileges beyond other men. But, let him touch ground, let him set the wrong course, let him bring destruction to his ship or his men, and he must be held accountable -- he cannot escape.'

The cherished aim of every officer joining the navy is to command a warship one day. Why would any man want to command a navy ship if there were not severe penalties for failure -- if your action or failure to act brought death and destruction to your ship or your men?

The experience of command of a ship at sea is unforgettable; it is without parallel or equal. The responsibility is heavy, but the rewards are priceless. As Joseph Conrad said, 'In each ship there is one man who, in the hour of emergency or peril at sea, can turn to no other man. There is one who alone is ultimately responsible for the safe navigation, engineering performance, accurate gun firing and morale of his ship. He is the commanding officer. He is the ship.'

Fortunately for the country, the Indian Navy has, over the years, strictly followed the principle of accountability in the matter of ship commands. The commanding officer is always held responsible for any misdeeds and errors by his ship. A ship is navigated by her navigating officer but if the navigator manages by his mistakes to ground a ship then the captain will have to take the blame. Many a bright career has been halted by the error of a junior officer. In many cases of collision between two ships, the commanding officer has not been on the bridge, from where the ship is controlled, but has had to face a court martial. He cannot blame his subordinate.

In the formative years of the Republic, the principle of responsibility and accountability were well understood by our leaders. Lal Bahadur Shastri set a healthy precedent by accepting the responsibility for a railway accident. Today the minister more than often brazenly stands his ground. If the heat is too much, they go through the farce of the minister submitting his resignation followed by the prime minister refusing to accept it.

Not many of our politicians have even heard of the principle of conflict of interest. Justice Tom Clark was a highly respected member of the US Supreme Court. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Justice Clark's son, Ramsey Clark, as his attorney general. Immediately, Justice Clark submitted his resignation from the Supreme Court, where he had many more years to serve. 'Ramsey may have to plead a case before me someday,' he said.

In India, where politicians (and film stars) leave no stone unturned to promote their children, no one has ever heard of a father resigning because the interests of his son may coincide with his own. The principle of conflict of interest applied strictly demanded that no son, daughter, brother, sister or any other relative or friend of a BJP party leader, minister or office holder was allowed to apply for a gas agency or a petrol pump in the first place. The question of allotting the goodies strictly 'by merit' should not have arisen.

The petrol pump scam is an ideal opportunity for our political parties to legislate and strictly enforce the principles of accountability and conflict of interest. The whole issue requires to be debated soberly in Parliament. Thus another golden opportunity to learn from our mistakes appears doomed while we engage in scoring points and shouting each other down.

Admiral (retired) J G Nadkarni

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