Illustration by Binay Sinha
Now the BJP is realising how, post-Bofors, any government making a big defence purchase must expect to be called a thief. It can deal with the problem in one of three ways. First, the A K Antony way: Just don’t buy anything, and ban all private global armament companies. The only purchases made were purely government-to-government, with Russia where there is no transparency of pricing or competition and a few non-lethal systems from the U S Second, set up a transparent procedure, buy boldly but be willing to answer questions that will inevitably arise. Or third, you buy like a monarch, bypass all ‘boring’ procedure like Cabinet Committee on Security and other formalities, make big headlines on a foreign visit, and then contemptuously decline to answer any questions. This is serial, arrogant stupidity, and shows how the Modi government has dug a hole for itself.
With each passing day, the government is digging itself deeper into this hole. The latest excuse for not proceeding with the earlier deal of 126 Rafales, 108 of which were to be manufactured by the holy PSU monopoly, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), is that it didn’t have the back-end infrastructure.
Now, no company in the world would be immediately ready with assembly lines for a specific foreign fighter aircraft. Any reasonable person would know that HAL would still be better equipped for licensed production than any other company because that is mostly all—regrettably—that it has done in all these monopoly decades, and not particularly efficiently. But that nobody would diss a defence PSU. It is a different story that India missed a great opportunity during Vajpayee years when the IAF wanted to shift the entire Mirage-2000 assembly line to India. It would have had HAL ready for the Rafale, but George Fernandes, then Tehelka-hit, was wary of a ‘single-vendor’ buy.
For some reason the government won't state the simple truth, that a purchase as large as 126 Rafales was unaffordable, that it would have vacuumed the budgets from the Army and the Navy and that, for now, two squadrons were considered sufficient. Nobody’s willing to say that HAL wasn’t dumped to favour somebody else, but because you scaled down the order and gave up co-production? Why, it beats me. Unless the logic is, why speak the truth when it is so much sexier to spin a web of nonsense and trap yourself in it.
Then, the alibi an emergency purchase had to be made as the IAF force levels had fallen to dangerous levels. That fact has been well-known for 15 years. This aircraft requirement was first mooted in 2001. This Rafale deal is a great commentary on the inability of a nation with super power fantasies to buy for its Air Force a couple of fighter squadrons that were critically needed two decades ago. Even these two Rafale squadrons won’t be fully battle-worthy until 2022. A government or a “system” (since it is irrespective of who’s in power) as incompetent as India’s should either outsource its national security to a bigger power, or give away Kashmir and Arunachal to Pakistan and China, respectively, demilitarise and save all that money for health and education.
One of the engines that powered Narendra Modi’s conquest in 2014 was his promise of a tough, decisive national security policy. He accused the UPA of being waffling and woolly-headed and weakening the armed forces by being too scared to buy new weapons for them. People believed him then, because he was right. The same people, therefore, are justified to ask him what has he done, with just months left for his full term, to rectify this.
The answer can’t be a few defence Make in India tamashas and air shows. The amount of FDI in defence manufacturing is so ridiculously low, not even a few million, that we are embarrassed to mention it. This government has been as pusillanimous, unimaginative, over-cautious and unsuccessful as the UPA. It is just that the UPA had never promised any better, but the BJP did.
The Rafale will surely be flying in Indian skies next year. These two squadrons will duly come up. But the way the BJP government has botched this will cast a shadow on defence acquisitions in the years to come. And defence Make in India? It was, very unfortunately, dead on arrival when you carried in your wake one among India’s most controversial corporate houses as a beneficiary from India’s biggest defence deal in decades.
This, when this country is yet to see any private sector company make anything major for the military. Even that will take getting used to in a country which took half a decade accepting private airline and phone companies. And when a corporate almost guaranteed to leave a trail of controversy and litigation with many of its projects, pops up in pictures and television footage, even in an aviator’s livery at the Bengaluru air show, and makes press releases claiming tens of thousands of crores of manufacturing deals as “offsets” for a brand new venture in defence, you should expect trouble. Now, you now say he will not manufacture even a screw for the Rafale, or that the orders he gets from Dassault under these “offsets” will be no more than ~60-120 billion and mostly to make wings for the Falcon, a popular executive jet Rafale makes, you are indeed speaking the truth. But it doesn’t matter. People will believe what they want to believe and they will compare this with the company’s boats earlier.
The final act of self-destructive absurdity in this list of serial stupidities was the string of “cease-and-desist” lawyer’s notices the corporate sent out to media houses and journalists (this writer included) somehow believing that everybody will be silenced in shock and awe. I don’t know what has caused more damage to the government’s case on Rafale, the exaggerated claims of offset beneficiary, or this incredibly arrogant notice. Governments will muddle along, but sadly, both actions damage the IAF, and the dream of defence Make in India.
Any major defence deal in this benighted city, crawling with defence agents, fixers, corporate lobbyists and self-styled ’ (know-alls) is bound to be called a scam. In the post-Bofors decades, every government has spun more complex layers of procedures to escape just such an opprobrium. None has succeeded in achieving such immunity, and none can. The Modi government had the opportunity to change this with transparency, disclosure and engagement. It has blown it.
By Special Arrangement with ThePrint