The most important thing about the Rafale issue is that, whatever happens in the political sphere, the Air Force should urgently get its squadron of fighter planes. The rest is political moonshine. The fear of suspected corruption in the purchase of arms from foreign suppliers has haunted Indian politics since Independence. It began with V K Krishna Menon and the Jeep scandal. At the height of hostilities with China, the Congress was so fearful of buying equipment from abroad that Menon, then the defence minister, insisted on locally produced weapons. But despite the ambitious Second Five Year Plan, India had no capacity to produce efficient weaponry. Even now it does not have. HAL has never produced a fully domestically produced fighter plane. This was why India had MIGs prone to crashing.
Rajiv Gandhi was badly burnt when he tried to change the rules and bought abroad. Whatever the fighting quality of the Bofors gun, it destroyed his majority. The entire conduct of the issue was a disgrace for the Indian political elite. Had the Army had its way, they may have asserted the usefulness of some good modern equipment. There was the coffin scandal that blighted the career of that marvellous socialist George Fernandes. It would be difficult to recall now what it was all about, if anything.
The memory of these scandals froze A K Antony during the 10 years of the UPA government, and the defence forces were left badly under-equipped. The original Rafale deal was never consummated. Here are we again and no one is concerned about the Air Force and its needs. It is revenge time for Bofors.
Whatever the politics of the matter, India cannot keep its defence forces at the mercy of fractious, dysfunctional parliamentary politics. Defence purchases ought to be hived off, in a separate, expert, constitutionally established body, which should be in charge. It should lay down a multi-year strategy spanning more than one parliament. It will of course need to have membership of the ruling party/coalition, but should also include the most recent defence minister and prime minister no longer holding those offices. It should have substantial representation of the defence forces but also prominent retired defence personnel. The committee can decide how much of its procedure and working to make public. The issue is serious defence planning and not parliamentary point-scoring.
There is of course the present dispute. Looking at it from the outside, it does not reflect well on the quality of political debate. Elections are near and much is at stake. No wonder Reason has fled the scene. Allegations and counter-allegations are flying around, but with no clarity or hope of settlement. The best way to settle the issue would be to appoint a single-person inquiry, which will not submit a report before the electorate has decided who will be the next government of the country.
If it is truth that both sides want, rather than short-term political advantage, this is the best strategy. The person who can do this has to be someone with experience of decision-making in government but trustworthy as being above party politics. Publishing the decision after the Election takes politics out of defence.
My person of choice to do this is Pranab Mukherjee. Give him the task.
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