As the war of words continues over the Rafale jet fighter deal, Congress president Rahul Gandhi has now accused government of weakening defence PSU Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to benefit Reliance Defence. To bolster this line of argument, Congress has pointed to recent reports that HAL for the first time had to borrow close to Rs 1,000 crore to pay salaries to its employees.

To be sure there are several valid questions that Congress has raised regarding the Rafale deal. These include why the original contract of 126 aircraft was changed to just 36 aircraft and why Reliance Defence – a recently incorporated company with no prior successes in defence manufacturing – was reported to have been made a major offsets beneficiary. But for opposition to bat for HAL and defence PSUs in general is a stretch. The track record of these government utilities is poor. Take for example the development trajectory of the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft Tejas. The Aeronautical Development Agency and HAL took more than three decades to produce an aircraft that met standards and has only now reached the induction phase.

In contrast, China’s defence PSUs have proved to be far more efficient and in recent years have been churning out advanced weapons platforms. A case in point is China’s indigenous fifth-generation fighter J-20 developed by Chengdu Aerospace Corporation. Indian defence PSUs are nowhere near such capability, which is why India continues to be one of the largest defence importers in the world. This in turn puts further strain on the defence budget and comes in the way of India’s defence preparedness.

The remedy lies in bringing more private companies into defence. Unlike defence PSUs, private players will be nimbler as they have a better work culture and won’t be bogged down by India’s notorious bureaucratic style of functioning. In fact, government’s aim ought to be to create an American-style military industrial complex comprising a web of defence research universities, domain experts and private companies that can quickly assess the country’s strategic needs and translate this into modernisation and weapons platform development. Of course, private players need to be vetted properly and should not be trusted with big contracts from the word go. What’s needed is a plan to build an indigenous private defence complex that will be vibrant within the next decade. That’s what government and opposition should be discussing, rather than playing politics with defence.