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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 17, April 18, 2015

Modi’s “Flyaway” French Deal

Friday 17 April 2015, by M K Bhadrakumar

If Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi were alive, we could have asked him how the French get around authoritarian rulers and tin-pot dictators from the developing countries who carry fat cheque books in their pockets while travelling abroad. As the dreamy picture in The Hindu newspaper immortalises the moment for historians of Indian diplomacy, the French leadership went the whole hog to make Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit memorable.

The entire leadership—President, Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and the charming Mayor of Paris herself—kept aside their weekend to escort Modi on a Seine cruise. Howzaat? That would make President Barack Obama go green with envy. Even with the alluring “Belt and Road”, President Xi Jinping could not get such a welcome as Modi got, worthy of a Haile Selassie, the Rastafarian messiah, the lion of Judah. (In fact, the French hosts even allowed a protest march by the Tibetans when Xi arrived.)

Now, that was all for a very good reason. The French got, finally, what they wanted, namely, a revision of the terms of conditions of the MMRCA deal that would absolve them of the need to make the Rafale fighter aircraft in the shoddy Indian defence factories.

Any vendor would love to sell rather than co-produce with the buyer, but the previous United Progressive Alliance Government was adamant for some strange reason that the French should stick to the terms of the tender under which they had won the deal. Maybe, it was the then Defence Minister A.K. Antony’s magical touch. Or, maybe, the UPA didn’t want yet another scam of arms procurement by the Indian armed forces on its hands.

At any rate, Modi has now blinked. Period. We should wait for Subramanian Swamy to redeem his pledge to file a suit in the Supreme Court in order to get to the bottom of what really happened for the Modi Government to mothball the original MMRCA deal and instead opt for the “flyaway” Rafale.

No matter the spin being given, the chilling truth is that the MMRCA deal has been arbitrarily revised by Modi on a balmy weekend afternoon in Paris. Just like that. And, that too, without even India’s Defence Minister being involved in his discussions in Paris with his fawning French hosts. The fact that Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar was inaugurating a fish stall in his home State of Goa even as Modi was striking the “flyaway” Rafale deal in Paris speaks volumes about India’s cabinet system of government during the Modi era. It’s a disgrace. People usually call such countries “banana republics”.

The spin being given is that the French are selling at a competitive price. Of course, they will quote a good price. What else would you expect from shrewd businessmen? Because, any vendor knows that the trick is to somehow make the entry into the market. Good money can always be made in the downstream of such deals while selling spare parts and servicing the product and so on without having to go through open tenders.

Besides, the Indians have now no option but to buy dozens and dozens more of Rafale aircraft. The Indian Air Force is “locked in”. It can’t be that the IAF’s need for Rafale ends with 36 aircraft after having trained an entire cadre of personnel to fly and maintain the aircraft.

Don’t the French know all this from previous experience with the Jaguar deal? And when the deals for more purchases come into the pipeline, or when these 36 aircraft need servicing and “upgrade” eventually, then the French will extract their pound of flesh. Make no mistake about it.

Another spin being given is the insinuation that as quid pro quo, the French—who control the Airbus company (along with the Germans)—will aim at making the Airbus aircraft in India. This is baloney, plainly speaking.

I just flew in the Lufthansa’s Airbus 380. It will be in the 22nd century at the very earliest, if at all, that India can hope to possess a machine tools industry and trained designers and efficient technical hands to make such a sophisticated product like Airbus 380. The Germans will never allow us to get within a mile of their prestigious Airbus product, either. It is a flag carrier of German technology. And, in any case, we should be modest enough to know that making an aircraft is not like making pakoras.

Yet another spin being trotted out is the familiar spectre of threat perceptions—that India faces the threat of wars being launched by Pakistan and China—to justify the need to buy fighter aircraft in “flyaway” condition. A horrible thought is being thrust into our minds that the IAF is having to fight a war shortly.

But then, Defence Minister Parrikar himself now alerts us that the first “flyaway” Rafale aircraft will not even come into our possession for the next two years. ”Fly-away means not tomorrow,” he warns. As a highly qualified metallurgical engineer trained at the IIT, Bombay, he should know what our spin doctors seem to be unaware.

Put differently, we are being led to believe that the IAF is preparing to fight a war in 2018 or sometime beyond. But then, what if Pakistan or/and China decide to attack us before 2018—say, soon after Xi visits Pakistan in April and Modi visits China in May? Modi’s purchase will go waste?

Why is the Modi Government and those sections of our media who don’t do their homework properly making fools out of the Indian public? Look, nobody in the first instance forced Modi to conjure up from thin air this entire dream of ‘Make in India’. It was purely his brainwave to make Indians feel proud and ecstatic and lift their spirits up from their dreary existence. But, now he has taken the dream back and suo moto dumped it in the Seine River in the weekend without even taking them into confidence. That’s a terrible thing to do—selling a dream and then snatching it back.

At least, this government should do us a favour—Modi and his Ministers should never dare to utter those eleven syllables again, ‘Make in India’. If they do so again, it will be an insult to the Indian people’s common sense and intelligence. A non-performing government is bad enough. But to sell airy dreams to the people is the height of political cynicism.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.