Voyage of Intrigue
The sacked naval chief is attacking the very civilian authority that patronised him in the past.
By Prabhu Chawla
"The Appointments Committee of the
Cabinet can reject my recommendation
Combative words, but the dismissed admiral may never like the real story about his own elevation to the highest post in the navy to be known to the public. If the Cabinet or the Ministry of Defence (MOD) had even once heeded the recommendations of any of his former bosses, Bhagwat would have been either cooling his heels in his native town or retired without becoming chief of naval staff. Because his superiors felt that Bhagwat had "not displayed the qualities commensurate with his high rank".
Investigation by INDIA TODAY reveals a sordid tale of political and administrative manipulations over several years, the sole beneficiary of which was Bhagwat. Ironically, Bhagwat would perhaps have been dismissed from service as early as 1991 if not for the support and connivance of the MOD civilians he is now directing his wrath at. Faced with serious charges and the ire of his superiors, Bhagwat's career was saved by the bureaucracy and the political leadership. In his case, they not only ignored adverse reports of senior naval officials, but also bypassed the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC). Instead, Bhagwat was rewarded with promotions.
Consider these facts: In April 1990, as rear admiral, Bhagwat was charged with making copies of two confidential letters from a file kept in the office of the Flag Officer Commanding-in-Chief (West) who at that time was away in Delhi attending a commander's conference. Still later, an incensed Naval Headquarters served Bhagwat a notice seeking explanation for his intemperate remarks against his seniors and senior officers of the MOD. Bhagwat denied the charges. With investigation pending, Bhagwat was denied command of any fleet. He hit back by filing a writ petition in the Bombay High Court seeking his appointment as fleet commander.
Naval Headquarters considered this an act of gross indiscipline on the part of Bhagwat and in November 1990, the then chief of naval staff J.G. Nadkarni served a "Letter of Severe Displeasure" valid for three years on Bhagwat. Later the same month, Nadkarni wrote to the defence minister suggesting that the services of Bhagwat be terminated for his alleged misdemeanours.
That could well have happened had not the civilians in the MOD kept the file pending for over nine months. In the meantime, Nadkarni retired and Admiral L. Ramdas took over as the chief of naval staff. Bhagwat had over the years developed excellent rapport with Ramdas and by April 1991, Bhagwat had withdrawn his writ petition.
Fortune started smiling again on Bhagwat when in June 1991, the Congress government of P.V. Narasimha Rao took charge at the Centre. Among the first things new defence minister Sharad Pawar discussed with then defence secretary N.N. Vohra was the Bhagwat case. A Mumbaiite, Pawar was fully aware of the antecedents of Bhagwat and while he expressed his displeasure over the rear admiral's behaviour, he did not follow up Nadkarni's recommendation for his dismissal. Instead, he directed Vohra to discuss the whole issue with Ramdas and take suitable steps.
Far from being dismissed, the bureaucratic confabulations actually led to Bhagwat's rehabilitation in the navy. Pawar decided to drop action against Bhagwat when he was told by both Vohra and Ramdas that Bhagwat would mend his ways. On July 31, 1991, Vohra wrote to the defence minister, "Admiral Ramdas has informed me that he has admonished Bhagwat in a meeting of all senior officials about the manner in which he has conducted himself in the past... Ramdas wanted me to request the defence minister that no further action need be taken against Bhagwat as he has already suffered severe displeasure awarded by the former chief of naval staff and had been adequately reprimanded by the present chief.'' Earlier, Ramdas had reduced the "severe displeasure" period from three years to one year, thus making Bhagwat eligible for his next promotion.
Initially, Pawar appeared unmoved by such petitions. On August 16, he summoned Vohra and Ramdas for discussions and questioned them about the adverse impact on the services "if all the issues relating to the conduct of Bhagwat were formally closed". When Ramdas assured him that he would be "keeping a close watch on the conduct of Bhagwat", Pawar relented and the Bhagwat case was given a quiet burial.
For Bhagwat, this was like crossing a major hurdle. But several others remained. There was, for one, opposition from within the navy. In May 1992, when Naval Headquarters forwarded three names for promotion to the rank of vice-admiral, Bhagwat's name was not in the list. When the six-member Promotion Board headed by Admiral Ramdas met on May 22, even the naval chief was unable to carry his colleagues along. Bhagwat's exclusion from the list was explained thus: "... he has not displayed the requisite degree of maturity, judgement and leadership qualities commensurate with his high rank and seniority. The Board is of the opinion that his acceptability in the higher ranks is very low."
But the MOD, which Bhagwat considers his nemesis now, was not amused with the Naval Headquarters' assessment of Bhagwat. After sitting on the file for over three months, the ministry chose to act in his favour even though his name had not been suggested. Vohra, obviously acting under orders, made a strong case for Bhagwat's promotion as vice-admiral. On August 5, he wrote to Pawar, "The officer has shown professional competence and displayed qualities of leadership ... nothing adverse has come to the notice of the government. In our view Bhagwat deserves to be considered for promotion as he has a good service record and the acceptability argument against his selection is a value judgement." Consequently, Bhagwat's name was added to the list of candidates for promotion and within 48 hours Pawar had put his stamp of approval on the proposal.
There was just one more hurdle to be crossed. The appointments of vice-admirals are cleared by the ACC. Pawar did not seem keen to follow the established procedures and told Vohra that the file relating to Bhagwat should be sent directly to the prime minister. Pawar said that the prime minister had agreed to bypass the ACC because of the sensitive nature of the appointments. On August 9, the file was sent to P.V. Narasimha Rao, who pondered over it for a month before clearing Bhagwat's appointment as vice-admiral. On September 15, Bhagwat was suo moto appointed deputy chief of naval staff at Naval Headquarters.
According to the MOD records, Bhagwat's was perhaps the only appointment in the history of the navy in which neither the chief of naval staff nor the ACC had any say. In case Bhagwat's dismissal comes under judicial scrutiny, it will be like opening a can of worms.
Bhagwat's career in the navy was soon cruising along. In mid-November 1994, when two vacancies of flag officer commanding-in-chief fell vacant, Bhagwat was once again in the race by virtue of his seniority. But his past was still haunting him. Admiral Shekhawat, who had by then taken over as chief of naval staff, is said to have suggested his name for FOC-in-C (Southern Command) with "great hesitation" because Bhagwat didn't enjoy the trust and confidence of his colleagues. And when Shekhawat retired on September 30, 1996, the then defence minister Mulayam Singh Yadav made Bhagwat the chief of naval staff because he was the senior-most vice-admiral.
Politicians and civil authorities indulged him after Bhagwat took over as the chief of naval staff. He had a personal dislike for Vice-Admiral Sushil Kumar (now the chief of naval staff), who was posted as deputy chief of naval staff at Naval Headquarters. Bhagwat tried to ease him out of Naval Headquarters by proposing that Vice-Admiral R. Jacob replace him as the deputy chief. But the then prime minister I.K. Gujral felt that since Sushil Kumar had just a few months of service left, he should not be disturbed. However, former home minister Indrajit Gupta stepped in to get the prime minister's approval to move out Sushil Kumar as the chief of the Southern Command. The shift effectively sealed his prospects of becoming the navy chief and Kumar would perhaps have retired had the retirement age not been raised from 58 to 60.
The sordid tale of intrigue ends with poetic justice. Today Kumar is firmly in the chair he almost lost. The only difference appears to be that the civil authority which catapulted Bhagwat to such a high pedestal eventually got the better of him by pulling him down.
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