By Neeraj Mahajan/ World News Report Exclusive
India’s urgency behind the request to France to supply 36 Rafale fighter jets in a fly-away condition ‘as soon as possible’ is real, but the next big question is — why now? Why did the Indian government –keep sitting on this and delay the matter? Why wasn’t such a request made last year immediately after Modi became Prime Minister?
A related and pertinent question begging an answer is -how soon will we see the Rafale flying in Indian skies if at all?
Narendra Modi will be completing one year in office on 26 May as the 15th and current Prime Minister of India. BJP party got a majority in the Lok Sabha (the lower house of the Indian parliament) – in the 2014 general election, for the first time in 70 years – since 1984. In other words, he has the requisite number of lawmakers on his side to enact any legislation in the Parliament or take any bold decision if and when he wants. Still why did he keep such a vital decisions pending?
Previous Manmohan Singh government suffered from policy paralysis and indecisiveness. Even before the government lost the majority, it virtually applied the brakes on major policy decisions. Some of these included the indecision on tenders for purchase of 126 multi role fighter aircraft, 197 light helicopters, and six submarines.
As a result, Indian Air Force (IAF) did not receive 126 MMRCA fighter aircraft to replace the aging MiG-21 fleet. The 126 fighters were to join the IAF over a period of 10 years and remain in service for over three decades. Interestingly Dassault Aviation was also the lowest bidder in that deal among six leading aviation firms from the US, Europe, and Russia. Dassault was to provide 18 planes in a fly-away condition while HAL was to manufacture the rest 108 under license. Dassault didn’t want to be held responsible for delays and problems in the planes manufactured in India while Indians who want the French firm to accept responsibility for all the planes produced under its brand. There was another tricky question– would the French continue to provide spare parts and ammunition to India in case of war? The overall effect of all this was that even after two years of negotiations the contract could not be signed. The cost of the aircraft increased in the meanwhile. As a result, Dassault decided to revise the quoted price from Rs 373-Rs 400 crore in January 2012 to Rs 746 crore — higher than even the Eurofighter bid for Rs 497-Rs 528 crore. By that time, elections were round the corner, so the Indian Defense Ministry put the deal in cold storage.
The Manmohan Singh government also not only canceled the AgustaWestland AW101 helicopter deal after the 2013 bribery scandal but put on hold the acquisition of 197 light utility helicopters (LUH) to replace the Cheetah/Chetaks. Similarly, the deal to acquire 56 transport aircraft to replace the HS-748 and Avro transport aircraft and another to purchase six A330 Twin-engine Multi Role Tanker Transport Aircraft for midair refueling were delayed.
Also stuck in the pipeline were contracts with Boeing – for 22 AH-64 Apache attack helicopters; 12 CH-47F Chinook multi-mission helicopters and $3-billion deal to purchase Honeywell engines to extend the service life of 100-odd Jaguars.
As things stand, even if the 18 MRCA’s get delivered in 2015, the remaining 108 aircraft made in India will not be ready. What this means, is that IAF is not likely to have the desired strength of 50 squadrons to fight a two front war for another decade or more.
The priority of the Modi government should have been to resolve the MCRA deadlock as well as sign the $1.4 billion contract for 22 Apache attack helicopters and $1 billion contract for 15 Chinook heavy-lift helicopters.
The big question is — even if Manmohan Singh Government is discounted as an example of bad governance, what difference has Modi’s government that works made? The reality is that the ground realities haven’t changed. All key acquisition and development projects are running behind schedule. Quite a few of IAF planes are on their last legs. Every project, be it an acquisition or design development, is taking longer than it ideally should.