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.
Press Conference Shows Armed Forces’ ‘Yes Sir’ Syndrome
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.
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 redeeming line conforming to service charter. Everything else was rich in homily and low on substance; a far cry from the stoic stance military leaders at rarified 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‘.
Is this Really the Military’s Job?
To my recall, 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 and 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.
Not Always Necessary to ‘Do Something’
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.
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.”
Heavy Price: High Costs & Compromised Social Distancing
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 have well 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 to the 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 and 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 seems to be complaining.
Beware what we are becoming.
(Capt KP Sanjeev Kumar is a former navy test pilot and blogs at www.kaypius.com. He can be reached at @realkaypius. He has flown over 24 types of fixed and rotary wing aircraft and holds a dual ATP rating on the Bell 412 and AW139 helicopters. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)