Rafale should not be the new Bofors | The Factivist by Shekhar Gupta
For four decades since the Janata Party government ordered the Anglo-French Jaguar for IAF in 1977-8, no defence deal has been entirely non-controversial. Most have become major and eternal political scandals. Nobody has as yet been convicted and sent to jail. Not one dollar so stolen has returned.
Two things changed with the Indian politico-military environment 1977 onwards. First, with the first defeat of the Congress party and the rise of the Janata, competitive national politics truly began. Second, given the new strategic challenges, Soviet technology limitations and the Morarji government’s efforts to move away from being a client state of the Soviets, India opened out to Western suppliers.
Indira Gandhi returned in 1980 and restored the normal with Kremlin. But Rajiv Gandhi saw the urgency to modernise, and tried breaking free. It is just that almost anything he tried to buy from the West, Swedish Bofors artillery, Type-209 German submarines, and briefly, even the Mirage-2000 from France, became a scandal. The first two still blight our politics.
This government inflicted on the country the absurdity of a fresh Bofors chargesheet when every supposed suspect, from Win Chadha to Rajiv Gandhi to Quattrocchi, has been dead for years. Only an Indian defence purchase feud carries on to heaven or hell.
Defence imports are the albatross around our militaries’ neck. Since 1978, each major Western acquisition has become a never-ending blood-feud between the Congress and the BJP, the real successor of the Janata Party. When Vajpayee was in power, the Congress hit back at his government through ‘Coffingate’ and the Tehelka sting.
The two “scams” endure although nothing wrong was found in the first, and no real deal was taking place in the second: At best it was a notional demonstration that you could bribe/entice key people in case there was a lucrative defence deal.
In the 10 UPA years, the first defence minister, Pranab Mukherjee, resisted party pressures to target his predecessor (George Fernandes) with probes, and paid with his portfolio. His successor, AK Antony, spent the following eight years, as India’s longest-serving defence minister, basically doing nothing. In the two decades beginning 1998, Indian military preparedness has declined. The conventional edge with Pakistan has blunted, the defensive deterrence along the border with China is degraded.
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Think, for a moment, about AK Antony, a man so risk averse that at different points of time I have described him as ‘wrapped-in-Latex’, Saint Antony.
Think of Antony, the most anti-American member of Manmohan Singh’s cabinet. Irony caught up with him as he ended up initiating India’s largest-ever military orders with America, on single-vendor, government-to-government (G-to-G) basis: C-17 and C-130 transporters, Chinook helicopters, P-8is for the Navy.
Politicians act stupidly for their own reasons. People pay for it. In this case, it is the military. Each one of the Western systems bought since 1978 has failed to complete its full cycle of acquisition and development. IAF is a good example: Two squadrons of this, three of that, cannibalising spares from here and there, old planes crashing. The next absurdity will be just two squadrons of Rafale. A great aircraft, but you will build infrastructure, new tech base for just two squadrons. Given how a scandalous halo has now been built around it, it is unlikely the weapon-system will realise its full potential. India is already scouting for more types (F-16/18/Gripen etc) and then there’s the Tejas.
The blood feud over defence purchases must end. But the Narendra Modi government is creating a new one by arrogantly refusing to discuss the price, or be transparent with the Rafale purchase. It’s making exactly the same mistake Rajiv Gandhi made with Bofors. It lost him his government, his closest friends Arun Singh and VP Singh, and, for the Army, stopped the Bofors programme.
Every government believes it will always be in power, so it can brazen it out. Fact is, governments change, but a nation’s military needs don’t. It is for the Modi government to prevent Rafale from becoming the new Bofors.
It should stop wagging its fingers at those asking questions. It should also begin demystifying defence purchases. Many myths need breaking. We are impressed when told that we are the world’s largest arms importers. But it looks different when you are reminded that we are the fourth largest military and the top three, America, Russia and China do not import much, while we make too little.
Over the past decade, our military imports have averaged about $4 billion (approximately Rs 28,000 crore) a year. For comparisons: Our five-year military imports are about two-thirds of one year’s gold imports, a tenth of the imports of Reliance Industries, and a seventh of the largest PSU, Indian Oil.
The reason arms purchases become scandals is the multiplicity of vendors, agents, lobbyists, sex appeal and popular ignorance. Being the largest defence importer still doesn’t mean we can be pauperised by thieves only in the military business. Unless we bury the “hum sub chor hain” mindset, our militaries will continue to suffer. But for that, this blood feud on arms imports has to end. The Modi government can begin this by being honest. Or the hole it has dug for itself will get deeper and deeper.