Many more Rafale jets are needed and the Modi govt can clear opposition doubts by just addressing their concerns

by Manu Pubby

To put it bluntly, there is no scam over the purchase of Rafale fighter jets as yet. There is no available evidence that suggests undue favours were given or rules bent to purchase a very capable combat aircraft that the air force desperately needed.

There are, however, questions on the terms of the deal. Some of these have been raised by the opposition – say on the pricing of the jets. But there are some that have not been highlighted – like the decision to purchase only 36 fighters against the real requirement of 126.

As things stand, at best there is a controversy over the deal but no indication of a scam. The real danger is that if the controversy is not carefully addressed, a familiar old cycle of freeze-frame could commence.

The heat that the Rafale controversy is generating has the potential of severely impacting military modernisation. The government might be fully confident in the knowledge that a bargain was struck for the jets but a constant mudslinging match would impact the decision making chain that includes a very careful bureaucracy. A bureaucracy that is very aware that any decision they put on paper would be up for scrutiny. A bureaucracy that knows that at least two major investigations are currently underway by the CBI into defence deals that the UPA government had signed.

The pressing reason for the government to come out with a strategy to deal with the controversy is that India simply needs many more Rafale jets. The 36 fighters purchased are nowhere enough to meet the concerns of an air force that is fast retiring its Soviet-era fleets. This number needs to be doubled or even tripled at the earliest.

The turnaround time that India has when it comes to pushing through a defence deal – the fastest we have done any in recent times is three years – does not give the air force the luxury of going through a whole new selection process.

The air force’s plans to procure single-engine jets has already hit a roadblock. The best-case scenario is that to make up the numbers, the air force can repeat orders for the Rafale jets, preferably placed within the next two-three years so that a continuous supply of the fighters flows in even as India retires its MiGs.

A larger order can also be leveraged to get a lot more from France – in terms of technology transfer, assistance in developing future Indian fighter jets, even a possible ‘Make in India’ production line that can be used for exports to third nations. A belligerent China on one end and the ever present Pakistani equation on the other demand a rapid Indian military modernisation – better, more capable equipment and perhaps a lesser manpower intensive approach.

The manner, however, in which the government is tackling the controversy – hiding behind a secrecy clause, questioning the motive behind queries raised — leaves something to be desired. If disclosing details in pubic is not an option, the concerns and questions raised by the opposition can be addressed in other manners. Calling in elected representatives of the country from the opposition for a closed door, detailed briefing is one. Using the institutional mechanisms available – the parliamentary standing committee on defence for example – is another.

If left unaddressed, there is a real danger of military modernisation being held hostage to the politics that has engulfed the Rafale deal. And that is the last thing that India needs.