'It was almost as though there was widespread relief that the defence bureaucracy, and the minister, could find someone willing to shoulder the blame for everything that had gone wrong with the services under Antony's charge -- the poor preparedness of the forces, slow acquisitions caused by indecision, cancellation of contracts and whimsical blacklisting of defence contractors over the tiniest suspicion that they may have paid speed money or kickbacks.'
Ravi Velloor, associate editor at Singapore's Straits Times, reveals what went on at the defence ministry under A K Antony's watch in his riveting new book, India Rising: Fresh Hopes New Fear.
An exclusive excerpt from the must-read book.
On the morning of February 26,2014, Admiral Devendra Kumar Joshi was in his Rajaji Road bungalow scanning the morning newspapers when he got first word -- signal, in navy parlance -- of an accident on board the submarine, Sindhuratna, while it was being put through trials in the Arabian Sea.
It was the second accident on a Kilo Class sub in eight months for a navy that had been going through an unprecedented and breathless expansion for the past decade.
As he digested the news, he thought back on a 40-year naval career where he had excelled in every command. The first of those commands was on a guided missile Corvette, his second a guided missile Destroyer, and his sailing days had ended on a high, on the aircraft carrier Viraat.
Joshi, the son of a top forest conservator with roots among the hill folk of the lower Himalayas -- the Army's Kumaon Regiment, which comprise men drawn from these parts, is the highest decorated -- was the first in seven generations of his family to choose the Navy or even the military, as a career.
He was also the first to rise so high from the Indian Naval Academy in Kochi, which has since relocated to Goa; previous chiefs had all come through the National Defence Academy near Pune.
To the surprise of his peers, "Joe" had always managed to speak truth to power, and gotten away with it. An impressive list of decorations had come his way, testimony to his professionalism, patriotism and integrity.
A little after he reached his office two hours later, the vice chief of the Navy, Vice Admiral Robin Dhowan, came to brief him on the accident at sea.
While the submarine was underwater, there had been a fire, three decks above where the submarine batteries -- initially thought of as the equipment that had malfunctioned -- were located.
To save the men trapped in the chamber, the sub's commanding officer had bravely entered the place but, in his haste, had forgotten the standard operating procedure of donning a gas mask.
In seconds, the fumes had overwhelmed the man and he now lay gasping for life in a Mumbai hospital where a Navy helicopter had ferried him from the stricken submarine. Two officers were dead and several sailors were injured.
It was just awful. "You have to brief the RM, sir," Dhowan told him, using the abbreviation for Raksha Mantri, or defence minister.
Joshi nodded, and dismissed his deputy.
Unknown to Dhowan at the time, the chief's mind was already made up.
Strict observance of standard operating procedures is imperative in any high technology environment, and it was clear, even without the routine board of inquiry that would doubtless follow, that the submarine's officers had been imprudent, even as they had shown exemplary courage.
In the past year, Joshi had ordered nearly a dozen officers stripped of their command over a series of accidents, some trivial, as he sought to crack down on indiscipline and poor leadership.
Not having fought a real war in more than four decades, military standards had been slipping, including that in the Navy.
In early 2008, the troop landing ship, Jalashwa, the former USS Trenton, acquired only the previous year, had suffered an accident at sea, with the loss of five lives.
In January 2011, 18 months before Joshi was elevated as chief, the frigate Vindhyagiri had slammed into a box carrier at the mouth of Bombay Harbour, and sunk to the ocean floor.
A year into his charge, the Sindhurakshak, a Kilo Class submarine that was being loaded up with torpedoes and missiles for a regular patrol mission off Karachi, suffered fatal explosions and sank at the pier of the naval docks, embarrassing the armed forces.
Eighteen people died in the Sindhurakshak, which had just returned from an expensive refit in Russia, meant to prolong its service life.
Those in the Navy knew that poor observance of missile handling protocols had caused the blast.
There had also been a series of smaller incidents, including a fire on board the aircraft carrier, Viraat.
As much as he had tried to defend the service from criticism, Joshi knew that the buck rested on his desk.
While no service chief would admit it, backroom duels to seek parity with the civil service -- promotions to the level of commander today are timescale-bound with merit-based promotions only kicking in for selections for captain and higher -- had worked against the quality of officers in each of the services.
The aggravation had been mounting after a series of pinpricks from the Ministry of Defence: The previous November, he had been stung by Defence Minister A K Antony's comment at a naval commanders meeting, that the Navy ought not to 'fritter away valuable national resources.'
Senior ministry bureaucrats had worked in that line to slight the forthright naval chief, knowing an alert media would pick it up and go to town with it after the series of accidents involving naval assets.
Some of the 'accidents' were trivial, and in some cases, the fault, if any, had to be laid at the door of the government, not the Navy.
For instance, in early February, the landing ship tank, Airawat, a frontline warship used to land troops on beachheads, suffered damage to its propellers because of inadequate dredging of the Visakhapatnam harbour.
The plain-spoken Joshi had not helped his cause by staying aloof from journalists -- indeed, there were official instructions from his office to the Navy to avoid contact with a top correspondent from a television news channel known for its aggressive and sensationalist reporting style.
The defence correspondent of The Indian Express, who had run a series of negative stories on the Navy, had not been invited to that year's Navy Day soiree.
Just days before, the paper had run a big story listing the naval accidents.
With little sympathy for the Navy chief, the media thus feasted on every misfortune suffered by the Navy, sometimes failing to add perspective by comparing it with the service record of the other arms, particularly IAF, which had a longer list of expensive accidents.
What's more, Joshi knew full well that Antony would not have dared to use phrases like "fritter away resources" with the Army chief.
Indeed, Antony had abjectly swallowed a series of provocations from General V K Singh, who had even moved the Supreme Court to take on the MoD, which had resisted his attempt to alter his official date of birth in a poorly disguised effort to delay his retirement.
All these factors played in Joshi's mind as he contemplated the step he was about to take and weighed its consequences.
On the one hand, he still had 18 months left to finish his tenure in a national capital where bureaucrats and military wheels cling on to office until the last day, hoping to be extended in service or be thrown crumbs like a post-retirement governorship or ambassadorial posting.
His daughters, Pallavi and Purba, had not been settled yet. There was also the strain he would put on his wife, Chitra, if he decided to leave suddenly.
Yet his entire training pointed him in another direction.
In his junior years as a midshipman and lieutenant, he had seen heroic captains protect their juniors from the wrath of senior brass.
When a particularly tough admiral cracked the whip, the captain would step in to take the blame for the younger men's lapses.
The Navy knew that if youngsters didn't make mistakes, they would never learn. That is how his seniors had raised him in the service. Too honest to ignore the wider circumstances, he knew it was time to go.
Joshi asked his secretary to connect him to Chitra, who just then was preparing to receive more than 200 wives of retired senior naval officers at a lunch she was hosting in the Navy House garden.
He described the situation, explained the need to take moral responsibility, and added a final word -- do not speak to anyone about this until the official announcement is made.
Late that night, the women who had enjoyed Chitra Joshi's hospitality that pleasant afternoon would marvel at this no-nonsense woman's composure -- she was smiling through the afternoon as she looked after her guests, even as her mind was in torment for her husband and the step he was taking.
Joshi next summoned Jayashree, the woman who had served as personal secretary to four Navy chiefs, and dictated a three-paragraph letter of resignation.
Ignoring her tears and her entreaties that previous chiefs had gone through worse without quitting, he ordered her to type it up and make copies.
A few minutes later, he walked into Defence Minister A K Antony's room and briefed him on the accident. At the end of the briefing, Joshi took out the letter and handed it to the minister, who sat back stunned, as though Joshi had struck him.
"You don't have to do this, Admiral," Antony whispered.
What followed in the next few hours would seal Antony's reputation as India's 'worst defence minister ever,' the headline of a special report on Antony's record in the March 17 edition of India Today, the nation's most widely-read news weekly.
Joshi's resignation letter sped through the bureaucracy and the PMO.
President Pranab Mukherjee, himself a former defence minister and now the nation's titular commander-in-chief, was informed.
There was no attempt to convince the gallant and upright officer to withdraw his resignation.
Yet, eight years earlier, when Mukherjee himself held the defence portfolio, then Navy chief Arun Prakash had offered to quit over a far more serious issue -- the War Room Leak scandal where Prakash's nephew, a former naval officer, was accused of illegally procuring naval secrets, including details of plans to make Scorpene submarines, on behalf of arms companies.
At the time, Mukherjee and then national security adviser M K Narayanan had firmly rejected the offer, saying Prakash had no culpability in the matter and should continue.
Indeed, Vice Admiral Sureesh 'Faggy' Mehta, then deputy chief of naval staff and the officer directly in charge of the War Room, suffered no damage to his career, eventually succeeding Prakash when the latter was superannuated.
Joshi's resignation, and its hasty acceptance, would have been justified if the poor record on accidents was unique to the Navy.
According to MoD figures given to Parliament, no less than 28 planes and 14 helicopters of the IAF had crashed since the start of 2011, by no means a small number. Half the IAF crashes involved MiG aircraft and the causes were depressingly similar to the Navy's accident record; outdated equipment, poor quality of spares and fuel, and, of course, human error.
Yet, the Navy chief was left spinning in the wind. Many people in top positions simply looked away.
Shivshankar Menon, the NSA, did not ask Joshi to see him nor did he pick up the telephone for a farewell chat, either on the day of the resignation itself or in the weeks to come.
Instead, the Indian government moved with unseemly -- and unusual -- alacrity to accept the resignation.
It was almost as though there was widespread relief that the defence bureaucracy, and the minister, could find someone willing to shoulder the blame for everything that had gone wrong with the services under Antony's charge -- the poor preparedness of the forces, slow acquisitions caused by indecision, cancellation of contracts and whimsical blacklisting of defence contractors over the tiniest suspicion that they may have paid speed money or kickbacks.
In 2007, the first time the Navy announced plans to hold Exercise Malabar with the US and other friendly navies in the Bay of Bengal, Antony hit the roof, recalled a three-star admiral, now retired.
Left parties led by the CPM, always sympathetic to China, were supporting the Manmohan Singh government in New Delhi at the time.
Coming from Kerala, where the principal opposition to the Congress party came from the CPM, Antony was hugely sensitive to their politics.
CPM chief Prakash Karat was threatening to march from Kolkata to Visakhapatnam, the Bay of Bengal port city that is home to the Eastern Fleet, if Exercise Malabar went through. Antony was shaken.
"Malabar is an area in Kerala, which is off the Arabian Sea coast. How can we hold Exercise Malabar on the other side of the peninsula, in the Bay of Bengal?" he demanded of Admiral Mehta. "Have you thought through how the Chinese are going to react to all this?"
Mehta stood his ground. He countered that Exercise Malabar 2007 was too far gone in the planning to be pulled back and Antony had to relent. And thus, the exercise went through.
What explains Antony's behaviour?
As he increasingly took on the tag of 'Saint Antony,' particularly in Manmohan's second term, some saw lurking ambition in the diminutive figure from Kerala.
Perhaps, he secretly longed to be prime minister. Antony had stood in for Manmohan at the January 2009 Republic Day parade, when the prime minister was recuperating after tricky heart surgery, and he seemed to have enjoyed the moment.
Given the prime minister's thin skin, there was a good chance that the man, fearful of losing his own reputation for probity amid the scandals that engulfed his second term, might quit office abruptly.
Should that come to pass, who more politically acceptable in a time of widespread scandal than super-clean Antony, never mind that he did not speak the national language, Hindi, or that his English was not easy to follow?
Hence, the more defence contractors blacklisted for seedy doings, the better for him.
What about his soft-gloved approach to General V K Singh, the Army chief? Antony's troubles with General Singh would not end with the Supreme Court chiding the general into withdrawing his case against the government.
The vitiated atmosphere in New Delhi between the military and the civilian administration was probably best exemplified by a news report in The Indian Express in April 2012, which suggested that in January that year, on the night that General Singh approached the Supreme Court over the issue of his age, the establishment had been spooked by the mysterious movement of two Army units towards the national capital.
The Indian Express report carried the bylines of its then editor in chief, Shekhar Gupta, and two other top writers, Pranab Dhal Samanta and Ritu Sarin. The report could not be dismissed lightly. Sarin, particularly, was renowned for her diligent fact-checking.
Since loyalties run deep in the Army, the suggestion was that General Singh had enough senior officers around him who would follow instructions unquestioningly, should he have wanted to do mischief.
Even so, the story did not make sense on two counts, as a serving chief of staff, who is no friend of General Singh's, explained to me at the time.
Firstly, if General Singh had been trying to pressure New Delhi over the issue of his age, he had chosen the wrong time -- the matter had gone to the Supreme Court and was well out of the hands of the civilian establishment. Surely, he wasn't attempting to spook the judges!
Secondly, if General Singh needed to sound a warning rattle, he didn't need to move troops from so far away. There were plenty of infantry and mechanised units already in the capital, preparing for the Republic Day parade on January 26.
Publicly, Antony dismissed the speculation that followed the report, describing the movements as a 'routine training exercise.'
He then waited for General Singh to retire, choosing not to confront the Army chief while he still held the post.
In those final months of his tenure, the General prepared his launch into politics, giving media interviews critical of the administration and building up his base among the warrior caste of Rajputs. It was as though he was taunting the civilian administration to fire him.
The Congress-led government would handle General Singh with kid gloves. It did not have the nerve to call the soldier's bluff, or warn him to stop leaking to the media. On the sidelines of the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that year, I asked Antony why he had been so timid around General Singh.
"Don't you think that was the least painful way to deal with the nuisance?" he responded. Perhaps, the course he adopted was indeed the right one at the time, although there were many who thought he should have made a firmer point.
A year later, Antony's response to another incident left the nation and its entire armed forces heavily incensed.
This was the brutal killing of five Indian soldiers along the Line of Control with Pakistan, authorised at the highest levels of the Pakistani army, as reliable Pakistani sources told me later.
The bodies of the soldiers from India's Bihar Regiment had been beheaded when rescue parties along the Line found them on the morning of August 6, 2013. It was an act of barbarity calculated to shock the Indians.
The Indian Army issued a statement through its Northern Command in Jammu that the ambush on the Indians had been carried out by members of the Pakistani Border Action Team, aided by the Pakistani army.
That statement was hurriedly withdrawn a few hours later on orders from New Delhi. Antony went before Parliament the following day to say that '20 heavily-armed terrorists along with persons in Pakistani army uniform' were responsible for the killings.
The phrasing appeared deliberately vague in order to offer the Pakistanis an element of deniability. To most Indians, it appeared that their defence minister simply did not have the nerve to confront his enemy. There could not have been a bigger let-down for the forces.
In the event, a high-ranking delegation of the BJP met prime minister Manmohan Singh to register their protest over Antony's soft approach.
Cornered, Antony went before both Houses of Parliament to issue a fresh statement clarifying that a specialist group of the Pakistani army was involved in the attack and that ties with Islamabad would be reviewed. He justified his earlier statement by saying that the incident had happened early in the day and he had not wished to 'jump to conclusions.'
It is possible that Antony, already under pressure from aggressive Chinese patrolling along that disputed frontier, didn't want to open a tricky second, Pakistani, front.
Also, Nawaz Sharif had just been elected prime minister and New Delhi may have wanted to keep open nascent peace initiatives with a Pakistani leader who seemed to want to improve ties, even as his military remained deeply suspicious of India and would have liked to thwart any conciliatory moves.
Whatever the reason, it was one more nail in Antony's reputation as the premier guardian of India's national security.
Antony's signal failing was that he was overawed -- and overwhelmed -- by the civilian bureaucracy.
Unlike Mukherjee, who was wise to the wiles of the bureaucrats and knew how to assert himself, Antony was far less successful in curbing their manipulative ways.
India's biggest curse, where defence preparedness goes, is the excessive civilian dominance over military planning.
In fact, parallel bureaucracies in the defence forces and the MoD complicate matters because of a lack of confidence in one another.
That is a real pity. In my interactions with the higher command across the three sword arms of the Indian military, I have always found the military men better informed, more globally aware, more amenable to trying new things, and strategically more acute than their counterparts in the civil service who dominate the MoD.
Yet, in India, the bureaucrats rule. Ministers are unable to check them because, for the most part, they are poorly informed and often have little experience in military matters when handed the portfolio. Even better if the minister is corrupt; the bureaucracy, with its ability to leak, has a real handle on the man.
Antony was not corrupt. He was just inept.
Excerpted from India Rising, Fresh Hopes, New Fears, by Ravi Velloor, Konark Publishers, 2016, Rs 695, with the publisher's kind permission.