Rafale row: Legal wrangles must not divert attention from shortage of aircraft, efforts to modernise IAF

Rafale row: If India is again going to be mired in a scandal and finger-pointing, New Delhi will lose sight of its primary objective which is to modernise the Indian Air Force

Bikram Vohra March 07, 2019 19:55:07 IST
Rafale row: Legal wrangles must not divert attention from shortage of aircraft, efforts to modernise IAF
  • If India is again going to be mired in a scandal and finger-pointing, New Delhi will lose sight of its primary objective which is to modernise the Indian Air Force

  • That the IAF had to wait three years for the first Rafale jet means the planning was poor

  • Last month, India scampered off to old friends in Moscow to give the IAF 21 MiG 29s to shore up the shortage

Between now and 14 March when the Supreme Court meets once again on the Rafale case, Rahul Gandhi is going to do his best to pull in the slack on his attack on the government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in particular, and beat his hostile drum. The softening in his stance brought about by the dramatic events starting from the Pulwama attack and the subsequent confrontation on the ground and air with Pakistan can only be hardened with the court hearing. While trading accusations of "false" and "stolen" documents and the now threadbare fall-back refuge on that old chestnut of national security is at stake, the issue that should have been put aside for the greater good has been reignited. The misbegotten purchase of Rafale jets has turned tacky again.

Rafale row Legal wrangles must not divert attention from shortage of aircraft efforts to modernise IAF

The MiG 21 is expected to remain a part of the IAF's fleet till 2019. AFP

To this, add the accusation that a newspaper stole documents, and the lapse in security seems more in terms of safekeeping of legal materials rather than any great danger to the country seeing as how there's no information on how the fourth estate accessed these documents. The defence is beating a dead horse. The details of Rafale’s performance and weaponry are now common knowledge. How much a secret was the Mirage 2000 and its capability after twelve of them struck the JeM camps at Balakot?

Perhaps the legal wrangle was best summed up by Justice KM Joseph who dismissed the defence's arguments by saying that even "stolen" documents can be relied upon if they are relevant.

"If an act of corruption had been committed, are you really going to hide behind national security? We are astonished you aren't referring to the law," he told Attorney General KK Venugopal, setting the tone for the future and placing the government under the cosh.

What is more worrying in the stirring of the pot again is the murkiness that will follow India, again, placing the country on the aerial backfoot. The same public that last week — in the saga of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman phase — was willing to move on collectively and demand more teeth for the Indian Air Force — thank you very much, Rahul Gandhi, now please be quiet — will again be presented with diverting controversy. You can see it unfolding. Modi will bounce from speech to speech telling his audience how the Congress has kept the forces weak and have no respect for the Indian bravehearts or whatever cloying label we wish to attach to Indian soldiers. Gandhi will babble on about corruption and kickbacks and India will slide back to the pre-Pulwama era. The Rafale which is still to land will be a crippled venture.

And what will be deflected is the lesson that slammed India in the face last week. The IAF does not have enough fighter aircraft. What more proof does India need of this situation?

In October, the thirty-five-year-old fleet of MiG 21 Bison — one of which went after the Pakistani F-16 on 27 February — will be mothballed. By the same token, the IAF does not need 36 but 126 Rafales. That the IAF had to wait three years for the first Rafale jet means the planning was poor.

The Eurofighter consortium offered India the Typhoon at a lesser price with instant delivery by taking current in-service planes from other air forces with the Germans leading the way.

Several countries including the UK, Germany, Sweden and France have offered to build us fighter aircraft, but India has cold-shouldered them.

Last month, India scampered off to old friends in Moscow to give the IAF 21 MiG 29s to shore up the shortage, which places the country on the backfoot, on an emergency basis.

India was fortunate to get away with a sense of heroics this time around but if the country is again going to be mired in a scandal and finger-pointing that invariably follows a military shopping expedition, New Delhi will lose sight of its primary objective which is to modernise the Indian Air Force. The next Abhinandnan Varthaman may not be that lucky.

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