by Anjana Menon

A stunning claim by former French President Francois Hollande over an Indo-French deal for Rafale fighter jets has torpedoed everyone in its path. Hollande originally claimed the Indian government proposed Reliance Defence be made a partner for the French to snag the deal.

The claim is messy for all. It paints Dassault—the maker of Rafale—a dealmaker, the Indian government a matchmaker and Reliance Defence, an interloper.

The 36-aircraft Rafale order was the first high-profile military deal announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. It ended years of a defence procurement paralysis that had gripped the previous government led by UPA. It gave hope to the armed forces who desperately needed to rejuvenate an ageing fleet, and promised to plough investments back into Indian manufacturing. Local companies expected they could participate in India’s military program, which is enormous even by global standards.

So the Rafale pact hinged on an ‘offset clause’ insisting that the French company spend 50% of the contract value in setting up manufacturing facilities with Indian partners. This would also give a fillip to the government’s marquee ‘Make in India’ programme. The deal barreled forth at the speed that mocked the inertness of the previous incumbent. The Indian government called it a government-to-government deal.

More than three years after the order was placed, and Dassault and Reliance agreed to set up a greenfield plant, Hollande has kicked up the perfect storm. Last week, the former French president rebuffed the Indian government stand that it had nothing to do with Dassault’s choice of local partner. Dassault, in its rebuttal to that rebuff, said the partnership with Reliance Group was of its own willing.

As the ping-pong carries on, Dassault is the one who has to answer why it finally chose to partner a company with little experience in aeronautical engineering. Especially since it was under no external duress.

Aircraft are complex to make. A Boeing 737, the kind that we civilians are more familiar with, uses 600,000 parts, 67 kilometres of wire and more than 100 kilograms of paint. Making fighter planes is a zero-defect game involving high-performance parts. This is why even countries that have managed to send satellites into space have had less luck building their own fighter aircraft.

Jet fighters flying at 40,000 feet give no room for error. They go through gravity force pressure, which hypertests the endurance of each plate, wire, rivet and glass in the plane, and the pilot’s physical fitness. Besides, fighter pilots are time-consuming to train and expensive to replace. The technical soundness and safety of a fighter plane, the sum of its parts, is what differentiates the men from the boys. It also determines who gets to be in the supply chain.

Dassault’s choice of Reliance as a ‘relevant’ partner raises the question to what extent previous technical experience was a key consideration in this commercial deal.

Everyone in aeronautical engineering knows that for first-timers, making critical parts presents a steep learning curve. One that can disrupt deadlines for component shipments and stall manufacturing. In this particular case, any such exigency could, in turn, hamper the fleet maintenance of the Indian Air Force using these jets.

This is not to say that the Reliance venture won’t be able to make critical parts for fighter jets. Companies do, once they hire the right people, get technology transfer and implement stringent processes in manufacturing. But equally, the job at hand is daunting for firms lacking experience in this field, even with hand-holding from industry veterans, such as Dassault.

As the claims, counterclaims and retractions mount, the Rafale controversy will be hard to blow away because at its nub is a statement by a former president of France, under whose watch the deal was signed. The surrounding noise is a sideshow.

For the Indian government that got voted to power on the promise of transparency, Hollande’s claim is damaging, but mostly on that count. Still, the Opposition’s extrapolations can easily be shot down with straight answers. That’s likely to work better with an electorate who no longer cares to know what UPA did in its term. They voted them out, after all.