Rafale deal is no scam. It’s just a glaring example of the BJP government’s pusillanimous, unimaginative, over-cautious and unsuccessful handling of defence purchases. We now have sufficient evidence to say that there is a humongous scam in the Rafale deal. Except that this ‘scam’ is spelt as ‘stupidity’
by Shekhar Gupta
If you find ‘stupidity’ too strong, you can choose a euphemism if you think it adequately describes this breathlessly arrogant idea that you could refuse to answer any questions on the pricing of a nearly $10 billion deal by claiming a secrecy clause between two democratic governments where all spending is subject to parliamentary and audit scrutiny. Or with explanations that get ludicrous by the day.
Today’s arms bazaar carries almost no secrets about platforms, weapons and accessories. If you are buying the Meteor missile to go with the Rafale, not just the Pakistani and Chinese air forces, but any teenaged defence nerd with a smartphone can give you a tutorial on it. What you can, and must, keep secret in this is sensitive electronics and tactics. Even the ballpark price of a Meteor missile, the Israeli 360-degree helmet for the pilot, is widely discussed in open-source military literature. There was no harm in discussing it in public and no reason to hide it. Except arrogance: How dare anybody question us in a defence deal? Are we like the Congress in the Bofors decade?
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 major 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 US. 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 the 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 licenced 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 nobody would diss a defence PSU. It is a different story that India missed a great opportunity during the 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, when you 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 Rs 6,000-12,000 crore 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 boast 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 ‘Subjantawalas’ (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.