They are symbols of decades of research and hard work accumulating, integrating and establishing technologies that have the potential to transform India’s model of growth and development

by R Swaminathan

This one definitely isn’t the typical fight witnessed within defence circles. The high-profile fracas over the Tejas fighter aircraft and the more subdued skirmish over the Arjun tank carry with it the potential to define what India is going to do over the next 50 years on its quest for growth, development and prosperity. For over a decade there has been an intriguing war fought in the byzantine maze of defence bureaucracy. Everyone who is anyone has fired salvos at someone who has had a plan or a plane to sell or anything resembling a tank to hawk. But the last one year has been different with the intensely fought battles often spilling over into the public domain. The war has now entered a decisive stage and by some quirk of fate and politics Nirmala Sitharaman is bang in the middle of it.

Over the years, India’s convoluted and snail-paced defence procurement process has thrown up several mythical and real stories of corruption involving shadowy foreign operators, Indian fixers and kickbacks to politicians and business houses. For long-time observers of India’s defence and national security landscape, stories of abrupt and mysterious changes in requirements and parameters of defence procurement are par for the course. Such stories have long passed the threshold to alarm or startle the establishment or the Indian people.

Within that context it’s tempting to interpret the ongoing battle around Tejas and Arjun as just random shrapnel spewing from a larger battle for India’s lucrative defence market. There are sufficiently good reasons to back up such an interpretation. Every single acquisition for the armed forces from new generation assault rifles for the infantry troops to anti-tank, surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles is going through a skirmish. In a sense, then, the fight around Tejas and Arjun seems to be inextricably connected to this larger battle. India has the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest importer of arms accounting for 13% of the global arms trade. That single fact makes India’s defence market the ultimate honeypot attracting intense attention from all sorts of legal, semi-legal and blatantly illegal shadowy entities and individuals. It’s also true that India has always had an appetite, aptitude and the necessary scientific and industrial base for acquiring, operating and customising state-of-art defence technologies. The Hindustan Aeronautic Limited (HAL)-led DARIN II upgrade of deep penetration strike aircraft Jaguar and the indigenous overhaul of the T-72 tanks with better engines, thermal sights and Explosive Reactive Armour (ERA) are two cases in point. In that respect, the deep interest shown by global arms majors from the US, Europe and Russia to fulfil India’s burgeoning defence needs is understandable.

The no-holds-barred fight centred on Tejas and Arjun is as much about the much needed multirole single engine fighters to boost the Indian Air Force’s dwindling squadrons and the critical need to top up the eroding armour strength of the Indian Army, especially when the possibility of a two-front war is real, as it is about India being the goose that lays the golden eggs for the global arms corporations and its ancillary industries. Yet, to confine the intricate and complex battles surrounding Tejas and Arjun to just the defence domain, as most long-time observers tend to do, is nearsighted and does not allow enough light to reach into the multidimensional implications that any decision regarding these two platforms is going to have on how India will develop its manufacturing and industrial prowess in the years to come.

Tejas is not just a fighter plane and Arjun is not just a heavy tank. They are representatives – metaphorically and materially – of the densely networked and sophisticated Indian ecosystem that has been in the making for the last 60 years. It’s composed of scientists, engineers and factory workers of different kinds – from material sciences, metallurgical engineering, propulsion systems to inertial guidance systems, software engineers specialising in fly-by-wire software systems and aeronautical engineering. Now, that both the platforms are mature enough to serve the country, after close to 30 years of research and development, they are seen as an existential threat to three inter-linked forces. Two of these forces are quite well known and there isn't too much of a mystery surrounding them. The first are the foreign defence companies and contractors who have managed to dominate India’s defence procurement process, especially in the last two decades. The second is composed of powerful parts of the Indian defence establishment and their informal network of middlemen, agents and liaison experts who have established a cosy, comfortable and an extremely beneficial relationship with these foreign companies and contractors. Long-time observers and veteran defence journalists know both these forces intimately and how they operate, literally both below and above the radar, and in knowing them so inadvertently tend to look no further. This leads most to conclude that everything defence and military is just that: what you procure for defence forces impacts only the state of military readiness, operational efficiency and our armed forces ability to counter hostile countries and their armed forces. But that’s not true, and not by a long stretch.

There is a third force, hidden in plain sight as it may, that has exponentially grown in size and power ever since the economic liberalisation of the 1990s. Composed of a wide variety of thought leaders, think tankers, academics, policymakers and bureaucrats, and former bureaucrats, senior journalists, Big 5 and non-Big 5 consultants – mostly trained in foreign universities, foundations, scientific and engineering academies and multilateral institutions like World Bank and International Monetary Fund – they have over the years come to occupy crucial positions in a whole host of institutions, trade bodies and civil society organisations. This seemingly amorphous group, and I use the word seemingly in all seriousness, is deeply wedded to the idea that India’s growth, progress and prosperity lie in collaborating and entering into partnerships with foreign companies, even on terms that are not conducive for India’s development and growth, global conglomerates, multilateral institutional mechanisms that promote free trade, intellectual property rights and the patents regime and generally being in line with the global economy and its concomitant geopolitics. To a certain extent it is true that India’s economic growth in the last two decades has come from integrating its complicated political economy to the globalised world order where trade, services, commerce and manufacturing are all inter-related, geopolitical and financialised.

The problem arises when the idea is converted into an immutable adage, such that it’s touted as a one-size-fits-all solution for everything from eliminating poverty in India to the country becoming a strong manufacturing and industrial power. This third force for various reasons – some above board and many below the board – creates a powerful discourse that puts global market and its mechanisms at the centre of all forms of development and security, including military, defence and national security. This is where the non-military implications of Tejas and Arjun come in. It’s precisely the long-term potential and possibilities of these implications that have caused vicious attacks on both platforms. That’s why the fight about and around Tejas and Arjun is not as much about defence procurement as it is about the pathways that India chooses to use to develop its manufacturing and industrial strength internally.

In more ways than one, the fight about the decision to induct all versions of Tejas and Arjun into the armed forces and continue with developing the platforms for the future is going to be a critical make or break moment for prime minister Narendra Modi’s vision about making India stronger and a competitive country on the world stage. It somehow seems appropriate that defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman is in the right place at the right time. To that end, it’s necessary for her to understand and unpack two crucial myths that are being perpetuated by this third force. Sitharaman is a strong woman in every sense of the term, but there are two interesting aspects to her. The first is that she once worked with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), an organisation that is a leading advocate of a globalised model of development. The second is that she has studied quite extensively in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) acquiring a master’s degree in economics from an academic institution that is often considered the intellectual powerhouse of a world view that wants India to adopt a more self-reliant model of growth and development. Only time will tell which aspect she chooses to asserts and will be allowed to choose to assert.

The first myth that’s continuously perpetuated is that both the Tejas aircraft and the Arjun tank are sub-par systems, obsolete, underpowered and not really indigenous. This myth is perpetuated by media organisations, journalists, experts and several serving and retired bureaucrats and armed forces officials. In short, the point that’s repeatedly pounded into our collective consciousness almost day in and day out is that the Indian defence industry – notably Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Ordnance Factory Boards (OFBs), Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), Electronics and Radar Development Establishment (LRDE) and Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and its several laboratories – lacks the bite and the muscle power to protect India. While that narrative may have some grains of truth and that too in a few specific cases, it’s substantially inaccurate in the case of Tejas and Arjun. While there are many logical inconsistencies that could be pointed out that fundamentally and irrevocably break that narrative, there are two pointed instances – one of Tejas and one of Arjun – that Sitharaman might find beneficial to keep in mind whenever she listens, reads or is exposed to that dominant narrative and its thought processes in one form or another.