The Podgy Admiral

New Delhi July 9  The sociological history of the Indian Navy, often recounted over a drink, notes that when the young 18-year-old Jayant Ganpat Nadkarni was adjusting to the rigours of training in the UK in 1949, a Royal Navy instructor yelled: “Come here, you podgy little man!” The handle stuck — and “Podgy” Nadkarni it was — as the gifted trainee officer rose through the naval pyramid by sheer dint of his professionalism to become the 14th Indian naval chief in December 1987.

Admiral Nadkarni who passed away last week was an able, down-to-earth chief, who was never carried away by his rank or the number of stars on his car. One recalls him as a young commander, then captain of the INS Talwar in 1968 and till the end he remained what he was — professional to the core, well-read, frugal, a dead-pan wit and fair but firm in his conduct with subordinates — traits that are becoming the exception in the contemporary military milieu.

An ace navigator, his natural talent was acknowledged even in the UK and subsequently, he was a legend in the navy for his acumen. Service history has it that he was the most sought after navigating officer for the navy’s premier warship at the time — the six-inch cruiser, INS Delhi. Admiral Manohar Awati, who was a few years senior to “Podgy” and is now convalescing in Pune recalled his younger colleague fondly: “He (Podgy) was an accomplished navigator, who had a special touch for the Haven-Finding art, which skill I do not see since his (Nadkarni’s) days at sea as a captain in a ship or as the commander, Western Fleet. No one, to my knowledge, has matched him in the past 50 years or more.” Awati added: “Podgy’s quiet, self-effacing facade hid a steely determination to do right, always and every time, by his ships and men. He belongs to that immensely rare breed of men who display character and was looked up to by all his subordinates, equals and superiors for his almost puritanical professionalism.”

Among Nadkarni’s many professional achievements, old-timers recall the 1976 OPGODSAL — Operation Godavari Salvage — when as the CO of INS Delhi, Podgy was responsible for salvaging INS Godavari, which had run aground on a coral reef off the Maldives. (Yes, the Indian Navy was “showing” flag on that distant island decades ago). It was a tricky operation and without the advantage of specialised salvage gear or accurate charts — the naval ships under the overall command of then Captain Nadkarni were able to salvage the ship — and sail to Bombay with Indian pride intact!

On his watch as the chief, the navy inducted the first nuclear-propelled submarine, INS Chakra, on lease from the former USSR. This was a major punctuation in the evolution of the techno-strategic profile of the Cinderella service — given that the navy receives only about one-sixth of the total defence budget.

During his tenure, India had the rare distinction of averting a mercenary coup in the Maldives (1988), through military intervention, when all three services carried out a spectacular operation. Nadkarni as chief reposed his faith in the young captains at sea and his signals at that time are still recalled for their brevity and resolve. As the flag officer commanding-in-chief, Eastern Naval Command in Vizag, Podgy oversaw his share of accidents and incidents at sea but always encouraged his captains to sail, with a one line advisory — ships will be safe in harbour but that is not what a navy is about.

Admiral Arun Prakash, former naval chief, recalls Podgy as: “This doughty Maratha admiral, surely had the blood of Shivaji and Angre coursing through his veins; it showed in his principles, professionalism and a clear vision for the navy. Un-flamboyant and modest to a fault, he earned the navy’s genuine respect and affection.”

Post retirement, the admiral turned columnist and wrote on national security. In my last conversation, he expressed his deep concern about the unhappy state of civil-military relations in India and the bleak assessment that there was no light at the end of the tunnel.

RIP Podgy Sir. You did your watch without fear or favour.