The air of mystery, confusion, corruption and malfeasance surrounding the purchase of 36 MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) Rafale fighter jets by the Indian Air Force (IAF) for a humongous €7.8 billion (Rs.59,000 crore), is an indicator of the extent to which pernicious corruption and abuse of power has seeped into the arteries of post-independence India.
In 2012, the Congress-led UPA-II government initiated negotiations with the Paris-based Dassault Aviation to purchase 18 fully-armed and equipped Rafale fighter jets in ‘fly-away’ condition and 108 in knocked down condition to be assembled by the public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), Bangalore under Dassault’s supervision. However before an agreement to this effect could be signed, the UPA government was swept out of office in General Election 2014.
In 2016, the BJP-led NDA government resumed negotiations with Dassault. Under a revised tripartite agreement between Dassault and the governments of India and France (IGA), the number of fly-away fully weaponised jets was increased to 36 at a price of €7.8 billion (Rs.59,000 crore). The IGA included an offset clause, under which of the total price of €7.8 billion, Dassault/ French government would invest 20 percent in local production of Rafale components. Moreover, the IGA replaced the floundering HAL with a newly promoted Reliance Defence Ltd, a company promoted by flailing business tycoon Anil Ambani.
Against the backdrop that defence equipment purchases have always been a cash cow for the country’s amoral neta-babu brotherhood which negotiates these big deals, it’s unsurprising that chopping and changing the size of the order, secrecy about weaponisation and therefore price per aircraft, interference by PMO (prime minister’s office) with negotiations conducted by the defence ministry, and particularly the choice of Reliance Defence in lieu of HAL as the offset partner, has aroused widespread suspicion of corruption and cronyism.
However in the melee, several important issues have been trampled underfoot. The prime issue is: to what extent can this desperately poor country in which 22 percent of the populace lives below the global poverty line income of $1.90 per day, afford fighter aircraft priced at Rs.1,639 crore each?
Clearly a diplomatic peace offensive against Pakistan and China is the more sensible option. Negotiating the status of Kashmir — even conceding a referendum in the Kashmir Valley — and redrawing the Sino-India border in the north-east and north-west — are surely a smaller price to pay than waging continuous undeclared wars on two fronts and running a non-stop arms race in the subcontinent. Unfortunately for the world’s youngest nation ill-served by a bankrupt intelligentsia, myopic political class, and inept diplomatic corps, these fundamental questions are seldom posed or seriously debated.