From 'Good Man Di Laltaen' to 'Yes' Man: Rise of Sycophancy in the Army
LT GENERAL VIJAY OBEROI
“A ‘YES MAN’ is a dangerous man. He is a menace. He will go very far. He can become a Minister, a Secretary or a Field Marshal, but he can never become a leader nor, even be respected. He will be used by his superiors, disliked by his colleagues and despised by his subordinates.
So, discard the ‘YES MAN’.”
- Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw
This article is on a fairly serious yet current subject, as veterans like me have observed a tendency amongst military officers of drifting away from that famous phrase ‘Courage of Conviction’ that was drummed into us from the first days of our joining the military training academies. Even today, I have no doubt that equal, if not more emphasis is given to this hugely important aspect of Military Leadership.
Even in other fields of endeavour, its importance is no less, yet nearly all civil government employees have been and are ‘Yes Men/Women’. The main reason is that when the governing hierarchy holds loyalty higher than professional competence; sycophancy flourishes and the nation suffers.
What the highly respected Field Marshal had stated was again highlighted by yet another Army Chief, General K Sunderji on assuming command of the Indian Army on 01 February 1986, in his famous personal letter to all officers of the Indian Army, wherein he had minced no words when he said: “As a whole, the Corps of Officers is becoming increasingly careerist, opportunist and sycophantic; Standards of integrity have fallen and honour and patriotism are becoming unfashionable.”
Till about two decades back, the military (by and large), had adhered to the advice of these great commanders and had displayed excellent leadership qualities. However, it is sad to observe that thereafter many military leaders have succumbed to the lure of the next rank and the filthy lucre!
The fall has been progressive and despite many military men and women of impeccable character, larger numbers are becoming prone to this virus. This has had a highly deleterious effect on the rank and file. Without character qualities of the highest order, militaries deteriorate rapidly and will not deliver when the chips are really down.
While many reasons are internal to the military, the deteriorating character of our political leadership has contributed in no small measure in encouraging this, initially among the civil officials and lately in senior military officers too.
This essay is not aimed at the politicians, for whom votes are the be-all and end-all of life! Nor is it for all civilian government employees, including the police, as they revel in being ‘yes men/women’ and know that this is the way to become upwardly mobile! My aim is to appeal to all military officers not to ape them but to shun such actions, as the security and sovereignty of the country rests on their shoulders. Military leaders must hence have impeccable character.
Let me digress at this stage to tell the reader about a phrase that was frequently used in the Indian Army in the past and is still in vogue among officers.
In undivided Punjab, a common phrase heard was “Good Man the Laltaen”. It was obviously hybrid like many that Punjabi’s had formulated! It was a phrase that conveyed one’s appreciation in an informal/friendly way. The last word, as you must have guessed, was the Punjabi equivalent of Lantern. Let me quote only one other example.
In the 1940’s, the struggle for Independence was at its peak. In Punjab, there were many firebrands, especially among the youth. Every day, there were slogan-shouting processions, against the British Raj. The then Governor of Punjab had a game leg, so he was promptly nick-named “Tunda Laat”. So, when someone cautioned a firebrand not to say or act violently against the government, the person’s reply was “Parwah Nahin Tunde Laat Di”, or I could not care less even about the lame Governor!
With this as the background, let me revert to “Good Man the Laltaen”. The basis for the phrase was that there was indeed a good quality lantern in the market, sold under the brand ‘Goodman’s Lanterns’. So, Goodman’s Lanterns became ‘Good Man Di Laltaen’!
The phrase was soon picked up by Army Officers and often used as a pat on the back for junior officers, while the Hindustani word ‘Shabash’ (Good Show) was used for JCO’s and Jawans.
Many years later, another line was added to it, more like a humorous riposte: “And Bad Man Da Diva”, although it was rarely used in the army.
As far as civil government institutions and officials are concerned, starting from the politicians, it was never “Good Man Di Laltaen” for most, but “Yes Man Di Laltaen”! The reasons were and are obvious, as sycophancy in all its forms was and continues to be the easiest ladder to success for those who are weak or inept professionally.
Despite all types of governments coming to power in the Centre and the states, no effort has been made to get rid of the sycophants and opt for professionals. It appears that sycophancy, which massages the ego of the superiors, has now become all pervasive among the civil officials.
It is unfortunate and I daresay highly dangerous from the security point of view that the
‘Yes’ syndrome has now crept in to the military. The new phrases in the military are “Yes Man Di Laltaen” and “No Man Da Diva”! Consequently, the armed forces are also veering away from the straight and narrow path of leaders with character. This is in stark contrast to the much ingrained ethos of the armed forces, when exemplary character was the hallmark of military Leadership.
In earlier times, a ‘Yes Man’, was not only shunned but was made to suffer the ignominy of isolation and little social contact. Unfortunately, spinelessness has resulted in more ‘yes men/women’ surfacing. While correct orders are never questioned, especially in the army, the army permits the questioning of wrong or unlawful orders.
It is a great pity that the military hierarchy is succumbing to ‘chamchagiri’ that was the preserve of most civil officials. The fallout is that even unlawful commands are answered by ‘yes sir’ and ‘will be done sir’!
This rot needs to be curbed ruthlessly as it is against the ethos of the armed forces. I can recall many instances of the past when firstly a senior officer hesitated to give an unlawful or even a wrong order to his subordinates; and secondly, the officer receiving such an order displayed ‘courage of conviction’ by going back to his senior, advising him that the order was wrong and requesting that it be changed.
The armed forces especially and even others, need to revert back to “Good Man Di Laltaen” from the current “Yes Man Di Laltaen, which unfortunately we see more and more, while the junior leaders look askance and curse under their breath!
Our young officers on commissioning are full of pep and most start their adventurous career in the forces on a high note, but as they rise in service and rank, they start losing respect for those seniors who display the ‘Yes Man’ syndrome. Resultantly, when they become senior officers, many sadly join the ranks of the “Yes Man Di Laltaen”.
Our senior military leaders need to re-learn the importance of character and professional competence. They must not be mere ‘Yes Men’ and revert to the basics of soldiering, which is not just professional competence, but also the highest level of personal integrity and belief in themselves; the personnel they command; and the ‘Izzat’ of their units, formations and the armed forces.
A great army with an enviable record must change and regain its lost high levels of Leadership and Character qualities.
(The writer is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff)