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Admiral Pereira and the civil-military relationship

As the Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Pereira stood his ground on professional matters whenever required.

Admiral Pereira and the civil-military relationship

TRUE LEADER: Admiral Pereira (R) had an unwavering moral compass and high credibility. Indian Navy



C Uday Bhaskar

Director, Society for Policy Studies

THE birth centenary of former Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral RL Pereira, alias Ronnie, was celebrated on May 25 in Bengaluru. The event was an appropriate moment to recall the profile of a charismatic service chief, who is remembered with admiration and affection by the extended naval fraternity and scores of cadets he trained at the National Defence Academy (NDA) as an extremely strict but much-loved deputy commandant.

At a time when the higher defence management is going through a complex institutional transmutation — as, for instance, the appointment of a retired three-star officer as the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) in preference to serving or retired Chiefs and the introduction of the Agnipath scheme — the locus of the military in the national edifice and the trajectory of a service chief as exemplified by Admiral Pereira (he served as the Chief of the Naval Staff from March 1979 to February 1982) merits a tentative review.

The review has to be ‘tentative’ since any assessment of a service chief and the correlation with the apex-level civil-military relationship in India remains opaque, given the lack of access to what may be termed primary-source archival material and the institutional reticence of the principal interlocutors.

This author has evolved a preliminary framework to review the tenure of a service chief wherein three major domains are proposed. First, given that the primary responsibility of a chief is to ensure and improve the combat efficiency of his service, it would be valid to assess the degree to which the needle moved in this domain during the tenure of the chief in question. The second would encompass the complex issue of civil-military relations in the democratic template — both at the politico-military plane and the military-bureaucracy interface and the manner in which the service is insulated from unwarranted political interference. How were these issues conducted during the tenure of the chief? And finally, the intangible determinant is the manner in which the chief nurtured the ethos of the service and its institutional integrity that subsumes the moral and ethical compulsions that devolve on the military in a democracy.

This author served as a young officer under Admiral Pereira when the latter was a two-star Fleet Commander and, hence, it would be presumptuous to arrive at any definitive conclusions about a former chief. However, based on empirical evidence of the Pereira trajectory — from a young Commander to a four-star Admiral — one may assert, apropos of the intangible determinants, that his stature remains the tallest among his peers. His professional and personal commitment to the Navy and the personnel under his command was total. Yes, just one word — total. And he was cognisant of what it meant to command and lead his men, and the Admiral led by personal example.

A gunnery officer by training, Ronnie was an unforgiving taskmaster who drove his men hard and, at times, in an extreme manner (akin to a drill sergeant major of yore) but he bore no malice or grudge and was a solicitous and generous senior officer who cared deeply for his subordinates. In many ways, he was an exemplar of the adage that it is only in the military that an officer is trained to lead and will eventually command troops and be entrusted with their lives in combat and training. This is an onerous responsibility and very different, for instance, from a job in the police, where a senior officer superintends or manages the force.

An unwavering moral compass and the highest standard of credibility were central to Admiral Pereira’s conduct. In a speech, delivered a decade after he demitted office, he noted: “The nub is leadership and credibility — because one cannot go without the other. To me, they are synonymous terms, because leadership without credibility is really a whitened sepulchre of pseudo-leadership. It has no use, it has no body and really, it does not achieve anything.”

While every chief can only build on what his predecessors had initiated by way of major acquisitions and is constrained by a range of external factors (funding, for example), the manner in which Admiral Pereira safeguarded the identity and interests of the service while engaging with the political leadership and the bureaucratic layers was noteworthy. He was always courteous and correct without being unctuous or browbeaten.

As the Chief of the Naval Staff, he stood his ground on professional matters whenever required. Anecdotal evidence has it that when there were some complex issues that had to be adjudicated by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who also held the defence portfolio, he politely, yet firmly, submitted to her: “It is your prerogative to have a Navy, and mine to run it.” To its credit, the political leadership of India at that time maintained appropriate institutional harmony, and, perhaps, besides having internalised the PM Nehru-General Thimayya episode, there was no rocking of the boat.

The civilian entity did not interfere in military matters and the latter acknowledged the supremacy of the elected representative and remained obedient while refraining from subservience.

Much water has flown under the bridge since the early 1980s, and the civil-military relationship in India has undergone a visible transformation in recent years. One wonders how the legendary Admiral Pereira and his ilk would have responded to the appointment of a retired three-star officer as India’s second CDS with a fourth star.


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