The Indian Air Force chief’s statement that the induction of the Dassault Rafale will give the fleet teeth is heartening, but is not a great revelation. Any fourth or fifth generation fighter like the Swedish Viggens,the American F-16s or the Russian Sukhois, for example, would provide the much-delayed dental upgrade. Nobody makes bad fighter planes in what is a highly competitive category.
More importantly, Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa’s observation is mutually exclusive from the inordinate delay in getting the first 36 aircraft and also the dust that has been raised by the Opposition parties. Therefore, any effort to link the air chief’s clean chit to sanitising the purchase of scandal is pointless.
Any military expert will confirm that if a four-star officer was to say the choice is a poor one, that would make news. Putting an in-house seal of approval after a three-year foot drag is not really a newsworthy initiative unless it comes as a diktat to quieten the uncomfortable questioning that intensified in August with Congress president Rahul Gandhi challenging Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in an unseemly and undergraduate fashion to respond to the accusations of malfeasance in the purchase. As a deflection, it’s a fragile effort because one would jolly well hope the government and the air force chose correctly.
The unfolding of this saga is also reminiscent of the Bofors episode where its unquestionable worthiness as a shoot-and-scoot Howitzer was eclipsed by scandal and slander and an international manhunt that got nowhere.
The risk is that the product and politics get so deeply intertwined that it all turns into a ball of wool. If it wasn’t for Kargil and the tilt in our favour thanks to the Bofors gun, it would have been maligned as a dummy — which was exactly what was happening until the conflict.
We are way past the time for endorsements for the Rafale. The need of the hour is to appreciate that there is more than one enemy at the gate and our air force is relatively toothless. To address the issue, India must move to either lease jets from France till the supplies begin to arrive or find short term alternatives, because the luxury of leaving the gate unattended till 2019 and beyond is an indulgence that cannot be afforded.