July 24, 2021
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Remembering Verghese Koithara: The Admiral, The Scholar, The CEO

If his contribution to strategic thinking earned the Admiral praise from the savants, the legacy he left behind in the Navy too, albeit in a different avatar, has been equally unique

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Remembering Verghese Koithara: The Admiral, The Scholar, The CEO
Verghese Koithara
Remembering Verghese Koithara: The Admiral, The Scholar, The CEO

A high-ranked officer in the armed forces often earns renown among his peers. When such an officer brings his experiential knowledge and razor-sharp intellect to bear on key questions of security after retirement, the field of recognition extends beyond the armed forces to academia and the strategic community, to scholars, savants and students. Vice Admiral Verghese Koithara was one such. No wonder, on learning of his demise, Shashi Tharoor penned a tribute thus, “Sometimes one gets news of the passing of a great Indian whom very few Indians know about, and who deserves to be better appreciated. The sense of loss I felt…was augmented by regret that so few knew enough about him to mourn with me.”

Vice Admiral Koithara, former Controller of Logistics (COL), Indian Navy, author, thinker and brilliant strategic analyst, passed away in the Military Hospital at Wellington, Nilgiris, just over a month ago. For an officer from the erstwhile ‘Supply & Secretariat’ (now Logistics) branch of the navy, his range of assignments was varied and did not resemble the conventional profile one associates with a logistics officer. An outstanding leader, his capacity to conceptualise, plan and execute change within the rules of the organisational framework was almost superlative. But those qualities were soon to be known outside the domain of his chosen vocation.

The academic in him had surfaced at various points in his naval career, so it was not surprising for many who knew him personally to see him being awarded a doctorate in 1999, a year into his retirement—that too, in political science! When his first book—Society, State, and Security: The Indian Experience, a natural offshoot of his doctoral thesis—came in 1999, it was to receive plaudits from one of the best experts on South Asian security within American foreign policy circles, political scientist and senior Brookings fellow Stephen P. Cohen: “(It)…will become one of the must-read volumes for anyone interested in India and South Asia…. This is now easily the best single volume available on India’s complex security environment…”.

In 2002, Adm Koithara himself became a visiting fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford, while writing for many journals and periodicals, including the Economic and Political Weekly. His next book, in 2004, spoke to the emerging strategic concern of the Musharraf-Vajpayee entente years—Crafting Peace in Kashmir: Through a Realist Lens. “Again a path-breaking book,” wrote Cohen. Besides its “carefully researched, thoughtfully argued framework”, Cohen felt “Koithara’s objectivity would put many a journalist to shame…”. The Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies also used the word “compassionate” to describe his voice, alongside “erudite, diligent…comprehensive”, not necessarily a usual combination.

If his scholarly depth seemed unusual, it perhaps owed to his active engagement. As former Chief of Naval Staff Adm Vijai Singh Shekhawat recalled in his tribute, “It was after retirement that Verghese’s other talents came into play and he acquired a role in discreet negotiations with political and dissident elements in Kashmir”. Adm Arun Prakash, another former Chief of Naval Staff, wrote that he “first became aware of his literary abilities” with the Kashmir book. “Possibly recalling my Kashmiri origins, he sent me a complimentary copy. It was an outstanding piece of work and must have come to the attention of the PMO and NSA.”

But a bigger “revelation” awaited Adm Prakash. Eight years later came Koithara’s next book, Managing India’s Nuclear Forces (2012), which again spoke to a complex, opaque theme dominating security discourse at the time. Adm Prakash was struck by how “far and deep the mind of an outsider had been able to visualise the intricacies” of nuclear security, “using only open-source information”. But this was no mere baedeker: it had a deeper import. Adm Prakash caught the nub of it thus: “Koithara casts a laser-sharp beam to illuminate the Stygian dark of India’s strategic domain. With an unerring instinct, he not only picks out the debilitating infirmities which afflict the management control and operationalisation of our nuclear forces by a scientist-dominated enclave, but also zeroes in on the flawed thought processes that guide India’s national security decision-making. Koithara’s spotlight on the ‘barren’ and mistrustful relationship between India’s political leadership and the armed forces, and the total exclusion of the latter from national security planning, could not have been better timed. His compelling exploration of India’s nuclear deterrent mercilessly holds up a mirror before the Emperor.”

Besides words of praise from other strategists like Cohen, Ashley J. Tellis and Maj Gen Dipankar Banerjee, Shashi Tharoor too wrote in Outlook that the book “needs to be read not by the armchair pundits who proliferate on our op-ed pages, but by the policy-makers at the helm of our national security establishment…” Calling it an “eye-opening tour de force”, he goes on to say: “This book is a wake-up call to those in charge of India’s nukes. It is a call that must be heeded, in all our interests.”

Peer Reviewed

In the years of service, he left an imprint at both intimate, personal levels and a uniquely organisational one. Adm Prakash recalls, “(He) was some years older, and a few NDA courses senior to me. My first encounter with him was in the mid-1960s…on an anti-submarine frigate where he was the Supply Officer and I, a raw Midshipman. Unusually for a Supply Officer, Verghese would spend a great deal of time on the bridge, especially during exercises and manoeuvres. One day, when the Captain stumped me with a tricky question on navigation, Verghese took me aside and patiently explained it at length. It was then that I realised his interests and grasp extended far beyond the domain of pay, accounts, stores, victualling and clothing.” That, coming from a former Chief of Naval Staff, is a rare eulogy. “We were not close friends, (but) over the years, my respect for him grew enormously. Koithara’s intellectual depth, maturity and acumen saw him being selected for coveted key senior positions in NHQ, where he brought about a transformation in the naval logistics system.”

Adm Shekhawat recalled their days together in the Defence Planning Staff, “a think-tank and support staff for the Chiefs of Staff Committee consist(ing) of civilian and military officers, chosen for their high calibre…. Verghese stood out for his grasp of any subject, strategic, nuclear, technological, administrative. Most work in DPS consists of voluminous reading, collating inputs, followed by animated, often heated discussions to arrive at a workable consensus. There could be a tendency for officers to protect the interests of their service rather than subscribe to the larger objective. Verghese proved a master of diplomacy and tact, with his penetrating intellect and good humour.”

Adm Koithara’s last five years in service were perhaps the most memorable for the officers and staff who had the opportunity to serve under his dynamic leadership. I was one of them, as part of a team for one of the major projects he had undertaken through 1993-98, where the nerve-centre was Mumbai. I was lucky to interact with the Admiral on a regular basis and got a glimpse of the several tasks he had initiated outside the one I was involved with. It was an extremely fast-paced work environment, with a highly creative team, so my recollections are vivid. Here was a man in a hurry! Lincoln’s famous quote—“Great things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle”—could not be more apt than for one who hit the ground running with a sense of urgency. This was when he shaped and moulded logistics in general and material logistics in particular—ground-up. Now, a quick trawl through what for many will be arcane seas.

The Logistics Revolution

The challenges in defence material management is unlike any other sector—and it’s compounded by the range, variety and scale of materials, besides of course the dependence on a large number of original equipment manufacturers spread across various countries. Until September 1991, when he stepped in, automation had been undertaken only in a fragmented manner in the various logistics entities spread across multiple geographical locations. Most of the procedures in vogue were based on old manual practices. The business world outside had transformed beyond recognition because of the changing technology landscape, but here change was hard to come by. How would leadership grapple with this problem—rather, a vast, shifting, foggy archipelago of problems?

A clear-sighted strategy. That’s where the late Admiral scored. Judge it by the fact that nearly all he articulated in the vision document he wrote at the outset was achieved at the end of five years, that too when the entire journey through concept-design-execution was fuzzy. The war was fought on many fronts, but with a cohesive nucleus—the Integrated Logistics Management System (ILMS), which he envisaged. An enterprise software that addressed all the core needs of naval material management.

To envision a home-grown ERP—the hot thing in software-enabled business management those days—was unique at that point, certainly across public enterprises in India. And here it was to cover a very large system boundary in a complex domain! Data was cleaned up: he realised a quality software was only as good as the data it was fed. Audit, an external function, was factored in so as to help speed up the purchase-delivery-payment cycle. A workshop brought naval managers close-up interactions with their counterparts from the Indian private sector, and a glimpse at the best practices in vogue. The entire IT hardware was set in place, including the network infrastructure that connected all the geographically distributed entities. Remote connectivity happened through VSAT links—in 1995-96! Interaction between logistics managers, till then bound by manual file-noting, switched to email. Profound cultural changes, in short, that were harnessed efficiently. Timely milestones, an innovative environment, deft navigation through the web of bureaucracy—his astuteness was in display all across the project cycle. No wonder, then, that a few years later this project became a case-study in one of the supply chain books of a reputed US management institute.

There was plenty else. Modernisation of warehouses, upskilling of storehouse staff, the first use of IT to improve Transport and Civil Works—through all of it, he was a hands-on leader. It was an orchestra conductor’s capacity to be attentive to both the big picture and the nuance. That’s why, though he was initially not completely tech-savvy, he could still be an effective sounding board for the software team when a design issue came up: they could be sure of an original, solution-oriented perspective from him!

An Officer and a CEO

He used to say that other naval arms may need more advanced navies as reference points, but what logistics needed was a peep into how the corporate world fared. That meant a complete relook at the style of functioning. When it was decided to rebuild the whole institution brick by brick in a new environment, it was actually a spectacular process of change management that he was helming, with all it called for: the ideational aspect (changing mindsets, removing dogmas, cutting red tape), leadership (taking junior colleagues along while pushing them beyond their comfort zones, ensuring cohesion among teams), as also the nuts and bolts (qualitative documentation, ensuring focus on tasks, quality results). In essence, he energised a large component of the logistics cadre during those transformational five years—demonstrating how islands of excellence with heterogeneous skill-sets could be created with the existing manpower, delivering astounding results for the organisation.

At the same time, the working climate was such that it enabled mobility—indeed, it induced officers from any stream to seek an assignment at any of these centres. He could do all this because it was clear to him that only a knowledge-based work force would eventually become change agents. For a rigid hierarchical service, that approach was indeed unusual.

While the technology has become obsolescent, his management style continues to be relevant and could still be put to good use. The Chief of Defence Staff, Gen Bipin Rawat, stated earlier this year that one of the biggest military restructuring efforts was under way through the formation of different Theatre Commands. One of them likely to take shape is the Integrated Logistics Command—a task that poses challenges at both the architectural and operational realms. The edifice built by Vice Admiral Koithara two decades ago should serve as a prototype of great value to the Indian Navy’s present Logistics leadership—indeed, to all the services. It’s a pity he is himself not present with us at such a time of great structural change—but his knowledge and acumen can be drawn upon because they endure in institutional ways.

(The author is a former Indian Naval Officer whose key assignments in the Navy included, Joint Director of Personnel (Information Systems) and Logistic Officer INS Delhi. He has also held different positions in the Integrated Logistics Management System Centres.)

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