The po­lit­i­cal de­bate to dis­credit the Gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues un­abated and re­flects a dis­turb­ing lack of con­cern for na­tional se­cu­rity among some sec­tions of the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment.


On July 20, 2018, dur­ing the de­bate in the Par­lia­ment in the wake of the “No Con­fi­dence Mo­tion” moved against the NDA gov­ern­ment by the op­po­si­tion spear­headed by the Congress Party, there was an ugly slugfest be­tween the two ma­jor po­lit­i­cal en­ti­ties over the deal with the Gov­ern­ment of France for 36 Rafale jets, a prod­uct from Das­sault Avi­a­tion. There is even a priv­i­lege mo­tion against Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi and De­fence Min­is­ter Nir­mala Sithara­man for al­legedly mis­lead­ing the House by not re­veal­ing the fi­nan­cial de­tails of the deal.

The deal for 36 Rafale jets for the In­dian Air Force (IAF) was ini­ti­ated by Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi dur­ing his visit to France in April 2015. There was di­rect in­ter­ac­tion be­tween Prime Min­is­ter Modi and Fran­cois Hol­lande the then Pres­i­dent of France. This ini­tia­tive by Prime Min­is­ter Modi was driven pri­mar­ily by the fact that the ten­der for 126 medium mul­ti­role com­bat air­craft (MMRCA) floated in Au­gust 2007 dur­ing the UPA regime for which the nu­clear-ca­pa­ble Rafale had been iden­ti­fied as the pre­ferred plat­form, had run aground due to cer­tain in­sur­mount­able im­ped­i­ments. The MMRCA ten­der had in­cor­po­rated the ‘Make in In­dia’ scheme with Hin­dus­tan Aero­nau­tics Lim­ited (HAL) des­ig­nated as the lead in­te­gra­tor. 18 air­craft were to be pro­cured in fly-away con­di­tion from Das­sault Avi­a­tion and the re­main­ing 108 were to be man­u­fac­tured in In­dia by HAL with trans­fer of tech­nol­ogy (ToT).

At the time the ten­der for 126 MMRCA was floated, the IAF was al­ready af­flicted with se­ri­ous ero­sion of the com­bat ca­pa­bil­ity of its fleet of fighter air­craft, a large part of which had been over­taken by ob­so­les­cence and was thus head­ing for re­tire­ment from ser­vice. The prob­lem was fur­ther ag­gra­vated by the un­for­tu­nate can­cel­la­tion of the ten­der for 126 MMRCA push­ing the IAF into a dis­tress sit­u­a­tion es­pe­cially as it is re­quired to be pre­pared to cope with of­fen­sive air op­er­a­tions launched by China and Pak­istan si­mul­ta­ne­ously. Can­cel­la­tion of the MMRCA ten­der thus gen­er­ated se­ri­ous con­cerns about the lack of op­er­a­tional ca­pa­bil­ity of the IAF to fight a two-front war. It was at this junc­ture that Prime Min­is­ter Modi made good use of his visit to France and ne­go­ti­ated the Rafale deal that has be­come a sub­ject of po­lit­i­cal con­tro­versy to­day. As the num­ber be­ing ac­quired was much too small for a man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­ity to be set up in In­dia, the 36 Rafale jets are to be pro­cured in fly-away con­di­tion. This ac­qui­si­tion would pro­vide re­lief to the com­bat fleet of the IAF, al­beit only par­tially.

The most con­tentious is­sue raised by the op­po­si­tion in the Par­lia­ment was about the cost which was claimed to be ne­go­ti­ated in the MMRCA ten­der dur­ing the UPA regime as be­ing un­der ` 600 crore per air­craft whereas the NDA gov­ern­ment has fi­nalised a deal shelling out ` 1600 crore per air­craft, an es­ca­la­tion by nearly 300 per cent! Un­for­tu­nately, as claimed by the Min­is­ter of De­fence, the NDA gov­ern­ment was not in a po­si­tion to re­veal de­tails of the con­tract in­clud­ing pric­ing on ac­count of a se­crecy pact with France per­tain­ing to pro­cure­ment of mil­i­tary hard­ware en­tered into in 2008 dur­ing the UPA regime. Un­for­tu­nately, the op­po­si­tion con­cluded that the NDA gov­ern­ment “had some­thing to hide” and hinted at a strong pos­si­bil­ity of a “scam”, some­thing that has in fact hounded suc­ces­sive Congress gov­ern­ments in sev­eral ma­jor projects, both within and out­side the do­main of the Min­istry of De­fence, be­gin­ning with the in­fa­mous Bo­fors scam.

As the 126 MMRCA ten­der en­coun­tered a road-block af­ter tech­ni­cal eval­u­a­tion of all six plat­forms in the race, the fi­nal word on the cost of the deal could not be said. The fig­ure of ` 600 crore per air­craft in the MMRCA ten­der as quoted by the op­po­si­tion, was the price of only the air­craft whereas, ` 1600 crore per air­craft fi­nalised by the NDA gov­ern­ment, in­cludes cost of ad­vanced avion­ics, a range of the lat­est weapon sys­tems, main­te­nance and spares sup­port through its life cy­cle and train­ing. The IAF pro­jected a num­ber of ad­di­tions, mod­i­fi­ca­tions and as­sets to keep the Rafale jet rel­e­vant as a front-line com­bat plat­form for at least four decades af­ter in­duc­tion. As the MMRCA ten­der had stopped well short of the con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions stage, the fi­nal price was not quoted. There is there­fore no ba­sis for com­par­i­son of price in the MMRCA ten­der and di­rect pur­chase of 36 air­craft through gov­ern­ment-to-gov­ern­ment trans­ac­tion. Any at­tempt to do so would not be in or­der as it would only be mis­lead­ing.

As for the al­le­ga­tion of ex­clu­sion of HAL from the pro­ject, un­like in the MMRCA ten­der, in this case, the air­craft will be man­u­fac­tured in France and as such HAL re­ally has no role. As for in­vest­ments un­der Off­set, a num­ber of pri­vate and pub­lic sec­tor com­pa­nies in In­dia will ben­e­fit. Un­for­tu­nately, the po­lit­i­cal de­bate to dis­credit the Gov­ern­ment con­tin­ues un­abated and this could lead to can­cel­la­tion of the deal that would se­ri­ously im­pinge on the op­er­a­tional ca­pa­bil­ity of the IAF. What­ever be the fi­nal out­come, the pub­lic de­bate cer­tainly re­flects a dis­turb­ing lack of con­cern for na­tional se­cu­rity among some sec­tions of the po­lit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment.

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