Rafale row: Hollande's claims could expose BJP government's double standards, endanger ties with Russia

The Rafale controversy has taken another turn. The French government has stated that French companies have full freedom to select Indian firms for the contract; implying the French government is in no manner involved in the choice of Indian industrial partners for the Rafale deal. But now former French president François Hollande has reportedly stated that it was the Indian government that proposed Reliance Defence as partner for Dassault Aviation in the Rafale deal.

The Government of India says it is verifying the French media report but apparently there is much more yet to come. A petition seeking stay on the Rafale deal is with the Supreme Court, hearing for which may keep getting postponed (till the general elections?) but after Hollande’s statement the Opposition is now also demanding a JPC probe.

 Rafale row: Hollandes claims could expose BJP governments double standards, endanger ties with Russia

File image of Vladimir Putin with Narendra Modi. Getty Images

Whatever be the case, hopefully the Indian Air Force will get its 36 Rafales at the earliest. Of significance, however, is the fact that on the question of Dassault Aviation-Reliance Defence joint venture (JV), the government maintains the prerogative is Dassault's in selecting its India partner. But when Russia’s Kalashnikov proposed a JV with the Adani Group, which recently entered the defence sector, to produce the 7.62x39mm calibre AK-103 assault rifles, which are derivative of the AK-47 rifle, the government shot it down saying, “If Russia wants a government-to-government deal, it cannot suggest private sector companies for JV."

Well, wasn’t the Rafale government-to-government deal between India and France? Obviously double standards are in play based on assessed political fallout. Kalashiknov was given thumbs down for Adani Group after Rafale controversy erupted.

But the government may be in for a bigger crisis with the US continuing to threaten India with CAATSA sanctions. The fact that the US has now imposed fresh sanctions against China for purchasing fighter jets from Russia, makes a similar threat real for India. This also casts a dark shadow over Russian president Vladimir Putin’s India visit on 5 October for the 19th India-Russian Summit, when the S-400 Triumf deal was also expected to be possibly inked. But the S-400 is not the only issue connected with US waivers under CAATSA.

The government recently cleared a $2.2-billion deal for four advanced Talwar-class stealth frigates with Russia; two sets to be built in Goa and balance two be bought directly from Russia. Other deals include licensed-production of the AK-103 assault rifles under 'Make in India', joint production of the Ka-226 light utility helicopters, two IL-78 transport aircraft as airborne early warning and control (AEWC) and 48 Mi-17 helicopters.

Russia’s MiG is also partnering HAL in the race for 110 fighter aircraft for the Indian Air Force, saying it is offering a completely new aircraft with an upgraded radar and increased combat potential with a new range of missiles and weapons; 50 percent more combat potential, improved radar capable of tracing 30 targets simultaneously and hit 10 of them together, transfer of technology (ToT) and at least 20 percent less expensive than other competitors. Russia is also helping train and select Indian astronauts for India’s manned space mission — Gaganyan. The US while threatening India with sanctions against ‘major’ India-Russia defence deals, has conveniently left the term ‘major’ blissfully ambiguous so as to keep the decision always with the US.

With America’s apparent scant regard to India’s strategic concerns, did India rush headlong into signing the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) during the recent 2+2 Dialogue? Should we have not ensured guarantees against India-Russia and India-Iran relations first; that are intimately linked to our national interests?

US accorded India ‘Major Defence Partner’ status in 2016 but waited full two years before granting Strategic Trade Authorisation-1 (STA-1) status, which also was 13 years after the signing of the India-US Nuclear deal of 2005 which included the US promise to India of easing export controls.

Besides other issues, whatever the US detects at sea will be instantly conveyed to India under COMCASA. But what about movement along our land borders with Pakistan and China which is as relevant, if not more? Notably, the US wants the ‘Quad’ meetings on biannual basis instead of one, but is content with the 2+2 Dialogue taking place annually.

The India-Russia 'Special and Privileged Strategic Relationship' is expected to be taken to the next level during the forthcoming visit of President Putin, but what happens if the US waivers do not come for the India-Russia defence deals, and given President Trump's fluctuant behaviour, sanctions are still imposed on India even if Rupee-Ruble arrangements are worked out to whatever possible extent?

This can create a crisis for India at the strategic level, which the Modi government must resolve early at the highest level. India just cannot afford to dilute its strategic ties with Russia.

India will need to explore all avenues to preserve India-Russia ties and reduce undue US pressures. One avenue could be the considerable Indian-origin diaspora in the US in which the Modi government and Modi himself have invested heavily. They could be suitably used with the US midterm elections slated for November 2018, when all 435 seats in the United States House of Representatives and 35 of the 100 seats in the US Senate will be contested. Given the dissent President Trump is faced with at home, every vote will count and the Indian Diaspora can well voice India’s concerns, in addition to New Delhi's diplomatic efforts.

The author is a veteran lieutenant-general of the Indian Army

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Updated Date: Sep 22, 2018 16:10:26 IST