Wednesday, March 22, 2023
HomeOpinionThe FactivistModi should not allow Rafale jet deal to become another Bofors

Modi should not allow Rafale jet deal to become another Bofors

Text Size:

Defence purchases should be demystified. But Modi govt is starting a new blood feud by being arrogant & bull-headed over the Rafale deal.

For four decades since the Janata Party government ordered the Anglo-French Jaguar for the IAF in 1977-78, no defence deal with a Western country has been non-controversial. Most have become major and eternal political scandals. But never has somebody been convicted and sent to jail. Never had one dollar so “stolen” returned.

Two things changed with the Indian politico-military environment 1977 onwards. First, with the defeat of the Congress competitive national politics truly began. Second, given the new strategic challenges, Soviet technology limitations and the Morarji government’s efforts to move away from being a client state of the Kremlin, India reached out to Western suppliers.

Indira Gandhi returned in 1980 and restored the normal with the USSR. But Rajiv Gandhi saw the urgency to modernise, and tried breaking free. It is just that almost anything he tried to buy from the West, Swedish Bofors artillery, Type-209 German submarines, and briefly, even the Mirage-2000 from France, became a scandal. The first two still blight our politics and armed forces.

The Modi government inflicted on the country the absurdity of a fresh Bofors chargesheet when every suspect, from Win Chadha to Rajiv Gandhi to Quattrocchi, has been dead for years. Only an Indian defence purchase feud carries on to heaven or hell.

Defence imports are the albatross around our militaries’ neck. Since 1978, each major Western acquisition has become a never-ending blood-feud between the Congress and the BJP. When Vajpayee was in power, the Congress hit back at his government through ‘Coffingate’ and the Tehelka sting.

The two “scams” endure although nothing wrong was found in the first, and no real deal was taking place in the second: At best it was a notional demonstration that you could bribe/entice key people in case there was a lucrative defence deal.

In the 10 UPA years, its first defence minister, Pranab Mukherjee, resisted party pressure to target his predecessor (George Fernandes), and paid with his portfolio. His successor, A.K. Antony, spent the following eight years, as India’s longest-serving defence minister, doing little. In the two decades beginning 1998, Indian military preparedness has declined. The conventional edge with Pakistan has blunted, the defensive deterrence along the border with China is degraded.

Think, for a moment, about A.K. Antony, a man so risk averse that at different points of time I have described him as “wrapped-in-Latex”, Saint Antony, the Bapu Nadkarni of Indian politics: Never let anybody score runs or get many batsmen out.

Irony caught up with Antony, the most anti-American member of Manmohan Singh’s cabinet as he ended up initiating India’s largest-ever military orders with America, on single-vendor, government-to-government (G-to-G) basis: C-17 and C-130 transporters, Chinook helicopters, P-8is for the Navy.

Politicians act stupidly for their own reasons. People pay for it. In this case, it is the military. Each Western system bought since 1978 has failed to complete its full cycle of acquisition and development. The IAF is a good example: Two squadrons of this, three of that, cannibalising spares from here and there. The next absurdity will be just two squadrons of Rafale. A great aircraft, but you will build infrastructure and a new tech base for just two squadrons. Given how a scandalous halo has now been built around it, it is unlikely it will realise its full potential. India is already scouting for more types (F-16/18/Gripen etc) and then there’s the Tejas.

The blood feud over defence purchases must end. But the Narendra Modi government is creating a new one by arrogantly refusing to discuss the price even with a parliamentary committee, or be transparent with the Rafale purchase. It’s repeating the mistake Rajiv Gandhi made with Bofors. It lost him his government, his closest friends Arun Singh and V.P. Singh, and for the Army, stopped the Bofors programme.

Governments change, but a nation’s military needs don’t. It is for the Modi government to prevent Rafale from becoming the new Bofors.

It should begin demystifying defence purchases. Many myths need breaking. We are impressed when told that we are the world’s largest arms importers. But it looks different when you are reminded that we are the fourth largest military and the top three, America, Russia and China, do not import much, while we produce too little.

Over the past decade, our military imports have averaged only about $4 billion (approximately Rs 28,000 crore) a year. For comparisons: Our five-year military imports are about two-thirds of one year’s gold imports, a tenth of the imports of Reliance Industries, and a seventh of one of the largest PSUs, Indian Oil Corp.

The reason arms purchases look like big scandals is the multiplicity of vendors, agents, lobbyists, fixers, military hardware’s macho sex appeal and popular ignorance. Being the largest defence importer still doesn’t mean we can be pauperised by thieves only in the military business. Unless we bury the “hum sub chor hain” mindset, our militaries will continue to suffer. But for that, the chronic warfare on arms imports has to end.

The Modi government can begin this by being honest, forthcoming, and a little humble on Rafale. It can take a leaf out of the story of how Vajpayee, Jaswant Singh and Mulayam Singh Yadav sank political differences and saved the Sukhoi-30 purchase from Russia. If it persists with its bull-headed refusal to take the opposition into confidence on Rafale pricing, it will be digging a Bofors-sized hole for itself.

Subscribe to our channels on YouTube & Telegram

Support Our Journalism

India needs fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism, packed with on-ground reporting. ThePrint – with exceptional reporters, columnists and editors – is doing just that.

Sustaining this needs support from wonderful readers like you.

Whether you live in India or overseas, you can take a paid subscription by clicking here.

Support Our Journalism


  1. Prof PK Sharma, Freelance Journalist, Barnala(Punjab)

    It is very unfortunate that those at the helm of affairs of India are full of hostility, bitterness and scorn !
    In the Indian Polity at present there is no room for humility, cordiality, large-heartedness, magnanimity, consensus , transparency,
    objectivity, accountability, free-fair-fearless thought and tolerance !

    What to talk of mystification of Rafale Air Craft Deal alone, there is an endless vast list of issues of paramount national and international importance which are under the cloud for pretty long a period during NaMo regime ?

    For how long this nation with rich resources can be governed like this is a big question mark now for its natives ?
    Where exaggeration, boasting and hollowness of the present set of rulers will lead India to ?

    The body languages of both Prime Minister Modi and Defence Minister Ms.Nirmala Sitharaman while reacting during their replies in the debate on No-Confidence Motion bore a testimony to the fact that there is certainly something fishy about the deal ! Both were found agitated while responding to the sensitive charges levelled against them ! Had there not been anything wrong about the deal they could have responded in a normal and relaxed manner ?

    Are now they not fanning an air of mystery shrouding this deal ? More they mark time, more the mystery is to deepen further ! This deal will follow them like a shadow in case they prefer not to come out clean and it will continue tormenting them in the run up to the
    Marathon-the General Elections to the Lok Sabha due in 2019 !

    I am amazed why BJP stalwarts -Mr.Lal Krishan Advani and Dr.Murli Manohar Joshi are silent? When will they break their silence?
    They are Indians first and then ” BJP intellectuals ” Why are they wasting their intellect, have they now no duty and responsibility towards their motherland ?

    Though on the BJP Marg Darshak Panel reluctantly, yet they must show proper path and direction to the wavering, dithering and
    ” Yes Boss” BJP ! If BJP’s credibility and popularity is at stake so is theirs too ! Their objective and seasoned opinion to my mind will
    weigh a lot, doing a lot of good to the progress, prosperity and well- being of India ! At this critical juncture, it is imperative for both of them to rise above their personal consideartions and limitations in the best interests of the nation !

    In case, they rise to the occasion, their learned-valued intervention at this momemt may kill many birds with one stone !

    Prof PK Sharma, Freelance Journalist
    Pom Anm Nest,Barnala(Punjab)

Comments are closed.

Most Popular