Opposition to Rafale is against the national interest
If India’s foreign policy and defence interests, concerns about its image abroad, the maturity of political debate on a sensitive security issue, and plain common sense had been governing considerations, the debate over the Rafale deal would not have lost its moorings as it has.
Some facts are clear. With its depleting strength, the Indian Air Force has been clamouring for more combat aircraft for years. Dassault’s Rafale won the tender for the acquisition of 126 combat aircraft, with 18 aircraft to be supplied in a flyaway condition and the rest manufactured in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) with technology transfer. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government could not finalise the contract because of various reasons widely reported then: life-cycle cost issues, Dassault’s refusal to guarantee the HAL-produced aircraft with respect to quality standards, timelines and cost.
Faced with this impasse, the re-tendering option would have delayed acquisition inordinately, without certainty that any foreign private company would guarantee and accept liabilities for HAL-manufactured aircraft. The other option was to avoid this vexatious issue and order a number of flyaway aircraft to meet the pressing need of the Indian Air Force. However, the second option without technology transfer would thwart the ‘Make in India’ goal. Raising the flyaway number from 18 to only 36 would have appeared a pragmatic compromise. In the past, too, we have ordered a limited number of aircraft to meet immediate requirements. However, for technology transfer and boosting domestic defence manufacturing, the offsets route has been used by involving the private sector and raising the offset requirement from 30% to 50%.
Involving a private company in the Rafale contract has not been a sudden initiative. The debate on involving the private sector in defence manufacturing has been current, with policies framed and fine tuned periodically. It is recognised that while HAL has capacities that no private sector company can match, it is saturated with work and is criticised for performance shortfalls. Additional capacity had to be in the form of a non-public sector unit. Most western defence industry is privately owned and as we buy defence equipment from them, procuring it from a private Indian company with a foreign partnership should not be a problem.
France, India’s defence partner since the 1950s, stood by us in 1998. Instead of scrapping the Rafale contract entirely, salvaging a part of it to meet our own priority needs as well as preserving our equation with our first strategic partner among western countries would have seemed a sensible foreign policy course to the Narendra Modi government. The Opposition, too, should see the larger picture as whoever holds power in India will be dealing with France.
In a competitive international market, no supplier wants to reveal the true cost of equipment and components sold to another country, and hence the confidentiality clause. The government has broadly indicated the cost of the Rafale contract, but divulging every detail to satisfy the expanding demands of the Opposition would compromise security as this would mean disclosing the overall capability of the aircraft such as the precise India-specific additions, the armaments fitted, the number of missiles and whether the Rafale is nuclear-capable.
The Opposition’s unrelenting campaign sullies India’s image, projecting it as a corruption-ridden country where no defence deal can be clean. Besides affecting future defence acquisitions, bureaucratic decision-making will become even more dilatory. The deepening controversy has forced the Air Chief, Vice-Chief and the Deputy Chief to publicly intervene to protect the Rafale contract from collapsing and setting a bad precedent. The offsets issue is calculated to sully Modi’s image rather than project facts. No company will be the sole beneficiary of offset contracts as almost 100 partners, including HAL and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), will benefit when Dassault officially communicates the list to the defence ministry. Not a single Rafale has arrived, yet several thousand crore of benefits through yet-to-be-fulfilled offset obligations have been supposedly pocketed by an individual. If earlier, the Opposition’s use of a private conversation with a foreign leader to settle domestic political scores was breaching diplomatic norms, former French president François Hollande’s intrusion into domestic Indian politics through self-serving press comments has caused damage. Dassault’s intention to offer the naval version of Rafale to the Indian navy could come under a shadow with the current controversy. And now Pakistan has tried to enter the political game in India against Modi.
The government should not have allowed the controversy over Rafale to take the proportions it has. It has marshalled its case a little too late to break the momentum of the Opposition’s campaign that serves party interests but not those of the nation.
Kanwal Sibal is former foreign secretary
The views expressed are personal