It’s misleading to come out in defence of outright purchase of 36 Rafale jets from France by claiming that the country’s security is jeopardised without them and that the Rafale jet is what the Indian Air Force (IAF) wants. IAF’s choice of Rafale is not an issue. Also, it is disingeneous to claim that cancellation of the deal would be detrimental for India’s national security, when none of the serious critics, or even the petitioners, have either demanded or even voiced this demand.
What is an issue of concern is that Rs 63,000 crore (at the current currency exchange rate) of public funds are being paid for a deal where the number of fighter jets required was arbitrarily brought down from 126 to 36. A deal which actually promotes a ‘Make in France’ policy and makes mincemeat of the Bharatiya Janata Party government’s ‘Make in India’ pretensions. The earlier MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft)2012 deal was in nature of a Direct Offset Arrangement, where 18 fighter jets were to be bought directly from France and 108 were to be manufactured by the much-maligned public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, co-produced under Transfer of Technology (ToT).
Instead, what we got was an indirect offset arrangement where the foreign Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) has no obligation to produce or provide service in India for the item being bought from them. In the Rafale deal, Dassault Aviation will manufacture all the 36 fighter jets in France, and any component or part that it imports from India, as part of this indirect offset, has nothing to do with the Rafale jets. Another gift to the OEM is in giving it a free hand to choose its Indian offset partner. That a paranoid government which does not hesitate in filing cases at the drop of hat against its critics, screaming “anti-national”, places trust in a foreign OEM to choose any Indian offset partner without the Ministry of Defence playing any oversight role, is evidence of its appease-the-OEM policy.
In moving from direct offset to indirect offset, what the BJP government enabled was the marginalisation of HAL and even more gravely, the gratification of a corporate house with zero experience, not just in the field of aviation, but manufacturing as such.
What makes this “new Rafale deal” even more suspect is that in order to push it through, the due process was followed after the deal was struck. And it appears that national security could be invoked to even waive the requirement of a sovereign guarantee for what purports to be a Government-to-Government deal. Even the arbitration site was transferred outside India.
Last, but not the least, all this brings into question the issue of price. A price of Rs 63,000 crore at the current exchange rate of Rs 70/dollar for 36 fighter jets or Rs 1,700 crore for each at the current price is an exorbitant price. All this does not include the life cycle cost i.e., the price India will pay for the next 35-40 years the jets are in service for components/parts/services.
Arguably, even ToT comes with its own set of problems, such as restrictive trade practices like export restrictions, or even non-proliferation treaties etc. The manpower costs could also be high for HAL. But by no stretch of imagination or invoking national security can we absolve ourselves from asking how can something which promotes ‘Make in France’ and does not help in any way to build or absorb any capability indigenously, be a better deal than the one struck in 2012? It is correct that even this may not be the best solution and HAL has yet to succeed in being able to develop engines for fighter jets. In other words, to reduce dependence on foreign OEMs, India has to invest more in research and development and increase funding. But that’s for future.
Here and now, an import-dependent India has moved from a near done deal to one which smacks of gratifying a corporate crony, rather than help bolster national security.
Nothing exemplifies this more than the plea of the BJP government, after tom-tomming victory in the Supreme Court, that the Court wrongly grasped the grammatical intent of the Government’s claim contained in a “sealed envelope”. From what has been reported, there are not just one or two ‘grammatical’ errors, but several. So, while we wait for the apex court to respond to the Government’s plea as well as the petitioners’ counter pleas, rest assured that the stink from the Rafale deal is not going away any time soon.
There are far too many questions which the national security ‘mantra’ cannot cover. The acolytes of “Make in France’ would do us all a service if they now ensure that the ambivalence and ambiguity employed by them when using English language does not become their trait.
Worse, the barrage of abuse hurled at HAL by all and sundry and glorification of foreign OEMs, in the process, fans the neo-liberal dogma that private is better than public and indeed foreign produced goods, are better than Indian produced goods. Because it is becoming a predictable habit of the BJP government and its acolytes to run down constitutional institutions and public organisations whenever they meet opposition or criticism of their decision-making fallacies.
Sadly, this trait is afflicting people in high places with some of them going out of their way to run down critics when being silent might fetch them better rewards. Look at any which way, there’s too much stink rising out of the Rafale deal, and all the perfumes of Arabia cannot stem this stench.