Shekhar Gupta: If Sukhois were Rafales, HAL would fly

Since recent history is now divided between what came before or after Google, 20 years old now, this story just about makes the cut as it dates back to early 1998. George Fernandes had just been appointed the surprise defence minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s cabinet, to much scepticism. How was a trade union maverick in crumpled kurta-pyjama and chappals going to run India’s most formal, spit-and-polish ministry?

Mr Fernandes surprised us by how quickly he found his way around. The first challenge he encountered was breaking the vicious circle, or rather circles within concentric circles of the I’ll-do-nothing-I’ll-let-you-do-nothing bureaucracy. For the atheist Fernandes (he took oath of office not in the name of God but by solemnly affirming), Siachen Glacier became his favourite pilgrimage and fixation.

“My most distressing discovery,” he said to me in a recorded interview in Siachen, “is that in the MoD, they never say yes or no. They just put the file in orbit. You can keep chasing it. Meanwhile, wars come and go, may be won or lost.”

On one of his visits he found that the troops desperately needed imported snowmobiles and scooters to move on the glacier. The proposal to buy some, he found out, had been on a file in “orbit”.

On his return, he found out the names of the civil servants playing with the file. They were ordered immediately to go to Siachen and spend time there until they realised how important these scooters were.

Illustration by Ajaya Mohanty

It is tragic that Mr Fernandes is not in a position to communicate so we can only guess what he would have thought of the joint secretary and acquisition manager (air) in the defence ministry who wrote his dissent on the Rafale file. If he had read this genius note, he would have immediately pronounced him a brilliant rocket scientist, capable of putting even the desperately-needed Rafale in orbit. 

He may still emerge a whistle-blower if this Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) also turns out to be as cynical a headline-hunter as the one when the UPA was in power. So, I take a big risk questioning the wisdom of a holy bureaucrat. I am deeply fascinated by his reported suggestion that for the money India was to pay Dassault for 36 Rafales, we could have bought many more Sukhois from Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL).

Now, if cheaper, HAL-made Sukhois were the answer, why were we going to buy at all? Chances are Mr Fernandes would have asked him, why not buy as many as six new MiG-21s from HAL for the price you will pay for one Sukhoi? And then post him to an MiG training unit and make him go on a sortie every morning, strapped in the seat behind the pilot. In his book, a civil servant who thinks more Sukhois for the price of a Rafale is a good idea would deserve Siachen treatment. In mine, he would confirm every stereotype bitter military leaders harbour about “bloody boorocrats” (as they call them) and where some of us weigh in instead for civilian control of defence.

I haven’t yet seen a purchase scam of any size that ended in punishment by a court. I say this at the risk of inevitably drawing abuse from the Bofors generation. The fact, however, is that no money was ever traced back to anybody in India. Even the V P Singh and Vajpayee governments didn’t force Sweden to deliver on its sovereign guarantee. It doesn’t necessarily mean there was no scam. But maybe there was more value in keeping it alive eternally and encash for votes than recover the money and send a few individuals to jail.

What Bofors also achieved, though, is to mummify our defence acquisitions from non-Russian sources. Since Indira Gandhi ordered the Mirage-2000 in 1982, Rafale will be India’s first acquisition of a non-Russian combat aircraft — after 36 years.

It will be tragic if the Rafale also follows the by-now-scripturised Indian defence playbook. Buy a desperately needed system after 20 years of waffling, then a couple of rumours emerge, everyone calls everyone “chor” (thief), plastic replicas of the weapons system are flaunted in election campaigns, no one is caught, no one dares to buy any more after the first order, and our defence forces continue to muddle along, buying a little here and a bit there like a drooling kid in Toys ‘R’ Us. Rafale is now headed that way. So each weapons system becomes limited in numbers and impact.

The most fascinating collateral impact of the Rafale controversy in the election season is India’s discovery of a new deity: HAL. I admit that compared to Reliance-ADAG today, it might look brilliant. But we need to give this mammoth PSU monopoly, and India’s largest defence company, a reality check.

India has the fourth-largest military in the world. HAL meets the aviation needs of about 75 per cent of the Air Force, 100 per cent of the Army, 66 per cent of the Navy and 100 per cent of the Coast Guard. Check its numbers.

At about Rs 180 billion, its turnover is about a half of India’s also-ran truck-maker Ashok Leyland, less than that of Indigo airline (Interglobe Aviation) and the Hindujas’ relatively small private bank, IndusInd. If you shoe-horned HAL in Fortune 500’s India list, it will feature in the mid-80s. That, for a monopoly with captive customers. It spends very little on research and development. Its output shows that. Its annual exports, by the way, have remained in the Rs 4 billion ballpark. You might know some weavers in Mirzapur or Panipat with exports larger than this.

HAL has made more than 4,000 aircraft. Almost all are licensed copies, besides about 150 HF-24 Maruts, India’s only home-made fighter and a failure. We were taught by our school textbooks and films division documentaries to be proud of HAL. We were too innocent to understand its business model: The government buys a foreign plane, adds a co-production deal, and gifts it to HAL.

It’s done a great job in many areas, also as an ally of the Indian Space Research Organisation and Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE), but self-reliance is a big NO. It’s just a PSU bureaucracy fattened on “room service”, or what we’d call in Hindi “pakayi”. The Air Force has a healthy scepticism of its abilities. Don’t be taken in by the current chief saying he will buy 12 squadrons of the Tejas. What he isn’t telling you is that, given HAL’s record, by the time half of these are delivered, manned fighters will be obsolete, at least in the Tejas category.

Whether or not somebody steals money, there is definitely a huge scam in our defence purchases. It is our inability to buy anything and letting our armed forces languish. In a week when Putin comes visiting, Narendra Modi will apparently gift him an MiG-21 made in India by HAL. The joke, sadly, will be on us, as the Indian Air Force is the only large air force in the world still flying this heritage fighter.

India is throttling itself with self-denial by failing to bring its own, now globally formidable, private sector manufacturers into defence. Sometimes you’d think former judge Markandey Katju is right and we are indeed a country of idiots. We won’t let the private sector make weapons in India, but buy from the rest of the world’s private sector. Dassault, by the way, is a private company.

The UPA flirted with the idea, but A K Antony was too scared to move. He also spent his time banning almost every major armament manufacturer in the world, often based on anonymous, unsigned letters. The Modi government made a new beginning, and called it Make in India. It wasn’t shy of bringing in the private sector. But then, who told it to open its innings with Reliance-ADAG, and then mess it all up with arrogance and opacity where transparency and truth would have been its best defence!

Postscript: Did anyone tell you that ‘Marine One’, the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter that the US president flies, has a cabin made in Hyderabad by a Tata company? It’s a direct joint venture, not a result of gifted offsets. The company is now growing into making cabins for Chinooks and Apaches for the global supply chain. The best in the world are acknowledging the strength of the Indian private sector. It’s just that we aren’t.

By special arrangement with ThePrint

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