Now that the Indian Prime Minister has spoken of the Rafale fighter jets for the first time since scam hit headlines, that too appearing as a cheerleader for the Made in France product by Dassault Aviation, there is an opportunity to revisit the scam ridden deal.
The main Rafale offset beneficiary, Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group, is on the brink of insolvency and faces possible arrest for contempt of the Supreme Court. This turn of events makes it clear that Dassault Aviation’s CEO Eric Trappier’s claim was unfounded that Ambanis are a “respectable family” and that while both brothers run different businesses, the family is the same. This was to suggest that the name Ambani is so impressive that Dassault had no need for due diligence. Dassault Aviation remained innocent of common knowledge in India about the two brothers falling apart. Old timers would recall the lurid details that came to light with each brother exposing the other’s shenanigans. If despite this Dassault chose ADAG and claims that it was a well-considered choice, then it speaks a lot about Dassault’s business ethos and also raises questions about its commitment to probity. Certainly, this is a national security concern in itself. A moot point is whether Dassault will sing a different tune were there to be a change of Government in India?
Recall that Dassault’s CEO was less than truthful when he claimed that the company with which they signed an agreement in February 2012, namely, Reliance Aerospace Technologies Ltd of Mukesh Ambani group, and changed its name to Reliance Aerospace in May 2012, “changed hands”. However, the Mukesh Ambani group demitted from the defence sector when the then United Progressive Alliance-II government ruled out any role for this company in the MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) deal and stuck to Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) for producing Rafales under Transfer of Technology. Thus when Trappier claimed that the company Dassault was in talks with in 2012 had “changed hands”, i.e Reliance Aerospace went to ADAG, he deliberately tried to mislead the Indian public. The ADAG company, Reliance Defence, which Dassault signed an agreement with, was incorporated a fortnight before the Indian Prime Minister arbitrarily announced a “new deal” in France on April 10, 2015.
Now that all the narratives spun by Dassault Aviation are showing signs of coming apart, it does raise questions as to why Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who never once opened his mouth on the Rafale deal that benefits a crony, chose to engage in wishful thinking on ‘what-if-Rafale-had -been with-us’, at a time when the Indian Air Force had shown its mettle by breaching Pakistani air space by flying MIG 21s and Mirage 2000 jets upgraded by the much maligned HAL?
When the Rafale deal was under the scanner for scam-ridden quality, the Prime Minister let others defend the deal, with most of them making outrageous accusations against HAL. Some even stooped to support Dassault’s offset deal with ADAG. Be that as it may, if after the Balakot raid, the PM feels emboldened to speak about his favourite Rafale jet, then he obviously believes that the scam has been buried for good. But the question is, what if the Balakot raid is not what it is being made to appear?
Over-confidence and overblown claims can become one’s own undoing. Take, for instance, the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) where on day one, the Indian foreign minister was invited as a “guest of honour” and this was treated as a great achievement. The very next day, the “guest of honour” was stumped when OIC adopted a resolution on Kashmir in support of Pakistan, condemned “Indian terrorism”, spoke of India’s human rights violations in “Indian occupied Kashmir” and characterised Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani’s killing as “extra judicial killing”. So weak-kneed was the Indian response that it dropped key phrases that the Modi Sarkar had been using in 2015,2016,2017 and 2018, such as OIC has “no locus standi” and that Kashmir is “strictly an internal matter”.
The point is that Indian foreign policy under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has consistently claimed credit when their record is muddied by over the top propaganda. The fact that BJP is going all out to take credit for the Balakot raid to harvest votes in the impending general elections, will not prevent the Balakot raid from becoming a headache. Because stoking jingoism is easy, raising stakes is easy; but living up to it is an entirely different proposition. The so-called “new normal’ actually stymies room for a really “non-military” initiative of political nature through diplomacy. By raising the pitch and playing to the jingoist gallery, bloodlust has been raised sky high. And every time something happens, there will be clamour for more. This can backfire and hurt us because it will narrow the government’s options.
It is instructive to take a close look at the sequence post-Pulwama suicide bomb attack on February 14. Twelve days later, with much fanfare, the Indian Government announced that for the first time after 1971, and since 1998 when the two countries went public declaring they possess nuclear bomb, India breached Pakistani air space on February 26 in response to the Pulwama suicide attack killing at least 40 CRPF jawans. From this arose the hyperbole of “seismic shift” in strategy and exposing Pakistan’s nuclear blackmail as a mere rhetoric. By doing so, some over-excited strategic experts claim that India has raised the cost for Pakistan, implying that Pakistan can now expect swift retaliation by India.
The trouble is that Pakistan responded on February 27 in broad daylight to breach Indian air space, downed one MIG 21 and took an Indian pilot captive. The Indian counter-claim of downing F-16 has not yet been verified. That the pilot was released within three days is welcome and did ease some tension. But this was not so much due to India’s hard line of not talking to Pakistan, claiming that “talk and terrorism cannot go hand-in-hand”. In reality, what India achieved was thanks to third party mediation which brought tensions down and ensured de-escalation.
The BJP had done the same in May 2002 when they appealed to the US to mediate because the war build-up saw 1,084 soldiers killed mostly while laying land mines, and neither side desired a war. The US mediated then as it did now under another BJP government. Others too chipped in, Russia and China, and even Saudi Arabia and the UAE dabbled in mediation. This is not a measure of India’s popularity, rather an inevitability when two nuclear armed neighbours fight each other. For Indians who dream of Indian regional hegemony, the fact that India cannot deal with its neighbours and resolve outstanding issues should come as a cold shower.
Balakot once again saw third party mediation play a critical role. And this will continue to happen every time tension builds up between two nuclear armed rivals.
Besides, recall that the Indian side described its own aerial raid as a “non-military pre-emptive strike” while India’s military brass called Pakistan’s retaliation as “an act of war”. If this was the case, the fact that India did not act against an “act of war” means that for all our claims of raising the pitch, Indian capacity to react is exaggerated. Indeed, reported facts also suggest that it was shallow breach of Pakistani air space, lasting less than five minutes. What was achieved by targeting a complex which ceased to be a terror training centre some years ago, questioned some Pakistan-based western diplomats. True, the Indian Air Force has shown its capability, but so did the Pakistan Air Force. That apart, some leading lights of BJP are tom-tomming the number of “terrorists killed”, while others fight shy and the Indian armed forces refuse to say anything. If it was mere capability projection, then it is quite likely that the air raid was to raise the profile of the Modi government, which has very little to show for its five-year rule.
So, for all the hyperbole of “seismic shift”, India could not afford to escalate the conflict lest it jeopardise US desire to pull its troops out of Afghanistan by striking a face-saving deal being worked out with Taliban with Pakistan’s help. Therefore, Pakistan remains critical for the US right now. And for all of India’s chest-thumping, India is back to a hyphenated relationship with the US.
Perhaps we need to heed the words of a former spy and head of RAW A S Dulat who told Karan Thapar of Tiranga TV that not only should India be talking to Pakistan but that we should be addressing the real issue which India faces in Kashmir, because of which ‘tanzeems’ such as Jaish and Lashkar have re-emerged after a decade of oblivion. This, he underscored, was primarily our doing and for us to repair.
In other words, by raising the jingoist pitch and claiming that a “new normal” has been created , the BJP will make headway for some time. But these things are ephemeral and can change as rapidly by the next set of events.
In this sense, all the queries regarding Rafale, cutting requirement arbitrarily from 126 to 36 jets, advancing 50% of the amount without sovereign or bank guarantee, compensating Dassault for all India--Specific Enhancements and waiving proprietary rights over ISE when India is paying for it, and the delayed delivery schedule on top of that, promise to make a comeback. The immediate reason is that ADAG is in deep trouble. Since Dassault went out of its way to defend ADAG, it’s only natural that any calamity that befalls ADAG will cast a cloud on Dassault and seriously dent its credibility, which is already in doubt over its less than truthful pronouncements.