What Navy Chief’s ‘Surgical Strike’ On VIP Culture Will Achieve

The Navy Chief has launched a ‘surgical strike’ on needless ceremonials: ‘Sir Culture‘, ‘death by PowerPoint’ etc.

5 min read
Chief of Naval Staff, Karambir Singh. Image used for representational purposes.

Incumbent Indian Naval Chief Admiral Karambir Singh has set a gold standard for the Indian military by revoking abhorrent colonial-era practices that had become a pain point across all three services. Through a pan-Navy CNS message (known as India General or IG, equivalent of a K-broadcast in the IAF), the Navy chief has launched a ‘surgical strike’ on needless ceremonials: the ‘Sir Culture’, ‘flower-pot overdrive’, ‘death by PowerPoint’ and ‘chicken tikka diplomacy’.

Organisational drift can become so large that basic virtues and unquestionable codes of conduct sometimes require a rude awakening all the way from the top.


How The Navy ‘Script’ Went Horribly Wrong

Navy-wide messages like the IG issued by Adm KB Singh have a limited validity of three months unless revalidated. If the true essence of his message is followed through with long-term changes, we may be on to something big. If he, and the service he commands, does not walk the talk, it will be yet another failed exercise in lip service, or ‘punboat diplomacy’.

Naval terminology has a delightful phrase for this: ‘gangway perfume’ – something that feels good but evanesces soon after you leave the ship’s gangway.

The most salutary offshoot of KB’s message is that it has been selectively leaked to the media. An IG is up on full public display, going viral, whether KB likes it or not. Now you cannot brush this issue under a ceremonial red carpet or say ‘belay the last’ (Navalese for ‘disregard my last order’). The shot has been fired. A ‘nation wants to know’ how we hold up to the chief’s orders.

Many good folks left the service because they couldn’t deal with vernier-calipering size of ‘cocktail samosas’, mastering napkin-folding or, simply, had wives who were done with having a ‘fling’.

No, not that kind of fling. In the Indian Navy, ‘fling’ is an annual event where the fighting arm of the Navy – the naval fleet – lets its hair down and celebrates their achievements.

Somewhere down the line, the script went horribly wrong. It became an exercise in unleashing the fleet commander’s (unspent) dramatic energies, aimed at overwhelming his Commander-in-Chief with the soft power of ‘nautanki’. Many Annual Confidential Reports (ACR) can take a virulent turn at this juncture.

‘Kaju-Kismis’ Generation Paving the Way for Meritocracy?

Letting your hair down? Honest folks have lost hair sprucing lighting and decoration, designing seating plans, curating invitation lists and exotic menu cards, etc. Men and material resources from ships were diverted to this cause, depriving officers and men of valuable time in harbour to attend to their families.

If a VVIP, minister, or dignitary embarked a ship, red carpets – never factored in naval logistics – were managed from here and there. Silverware for senior officials took precedence over greasing the ship’s guns.

Hopefully, idiosyncrasies of the ‘kaju-kismis’ generation of senior officers is now paving the way for meritocracy.

Adm KB Singh has rightfully kicked this malaise in the groin. We will soon see where it hurts.

If the ‘silent service’ has set an example, others must follow suit. Army excesses in this department are legion. Star-plated golf carts, special scotch whiskey counters for ‘brigadiers and above’ in social functions, deploying service resources for weddings in ‘general saab’s family’, and discretionary powers abused for personal purpose has ensured the slow attrition of what was once a beautiful community called ‘service life’.


How Internecine Turf Wars Destroyed Friendships

Today, dogs and naval officers aren’t allowed into Rajendra Sinhji Army Officers Institute (RSAOI) Bengaluru because a few smart alecs (and their progeny) abused this prime space to promote businesses, leeching off the free WiFi or plying civilian associates with fauji daru. As always, the honest and scrupulous pay the price. Internecine turf wars have destroyed bridges of friendship built over decades.

Much of the world is ‘flat’ today. Yet you will find parking spaces reserved for ‘Secretary’, ‘Patron’, ‘PMC’, ‘Sub-Area Commander’, etc outside every military mess or institute. This too must go. It is for the senior lot to ensure fairness in a system which respects everyone’s time without transferring the load onto juniors.

In other parts of the world, infants and differently-abled people get special consideration. In India, why should it be quite the reverse?

The Indian Air Force struggled somewhat in this race to catch up with its sister services. They are not as much a ceremonial-intensive organisation as the other two services. Theirs is a service where battles are often fought by a single pilot strapped into a fighter cockpit while others play supporting roles. Promotions are slow, coveted and hard to come by. Non-combatants can outnumber ‘living-in’ air warriors in an AF Mess today.

Even so, we had a few instructors who passed dictats in the Air Force Academy (AFA) that trainees should hug corridor walls and ‘stand-to’ when any instructor passed-by. Most of them sobered down later in life. Some went on to become Air Marshals and earned nicknames like ‘Pudding Ah!luwalia’.

The Tougher Right or the Easier Wrong?

A caution is in order. Adm KB Singh’s carefully scripted and well-meaning ‘IG’ skates on the thin ice of a bloated armed forces where the tail (revenue) is wagging the dog (capital). The world is more transparent today than it ever was before. Someone wise said “a lie can travel halfway around the world before truth can get its boots on”.

When we call into question such basic flaws in the system, we should be ready to bleed. Walls built over decades do not come down easily, especially in a disciplined force. But when it does, miracles do happen.

But, what the hell; if anybody can do it, it’s the Navy. The naval chief has fired the first salvo. Other chiefs can either toe the line, bring in sweeping changes, or, well, they can play ostrich and savour the ‘pudding’ or ‘kaju-kismis‘. Beware: ‘upar wala sab dekhta hai’ (nothing escapes the ‘big eye in the sky’).

Why delay the inevitable? Why pretend the problem doesn’t exist? You may disallow mobile phones, cameras and pen drives. Every indiscretion is still being recorded in the ‘hard drives’ of those you command. So is every act of astute leadership. Adm KB Singh’s ‘leaked’ IG can be read across to all arms, services and even the government.

The tougher right or the easier wrong? Which model do you want to follow, India?

(This article was first published on the author’s personal blog and has been republished with permission.)

(Capt KP Sanjeev Kumar is a former navy test pilot and blogs at 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.)

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