As a soldier’s daughter I spent most of my growing years in Army stations across India. Often these were just encampments in which the only public place for entertainment, sports and assembly was ‘The Club’. This was usually an old British bungalow with high-ceilinged rooms and wide verandahs. Remnants of the Raj lingered in musty billiard rooms, bars and ballrooms even if the new sahibs were brown and not white.
It was in clubs such as these that I first heard complaints about the Ministry of Defence before I even knew what it was. I remember many, many conversations between my father and his fellow officers in which they spoke angrily about ‘those b… in Delhi’. Their grievances were almost always about how the armed forces were being denied basic necessities. They talked of obsolete weapons, inadequate clothing and boots for troops posted on our borders, politicisation of senior officers and a disturbing disdain for those who put their lives on the line for India. This was 50 years ago. So it is deeply disheartening that little seems to have changed, although half a century has gone by.
At the India Today conclave two weeks ago, held after the attack on terrorist camps in Pakistan, the Prime Minister hinted that if the Air Force had Rafale fighter planes, the operation would have been less risky and more effective. He was immediately criticised for saying this, but those with expertise in security matters agree that the Indian Air Force urgently needs better fighter jets. In the words of a friend who has considerable expertise in military matters, “I cannot understand why we are only buying 36 Rafale fighters. The Air Force needs at least two squadrons. It is a real disgrace that this has all taken so long.”
The decision to buy Rafale fighters was taken nearly a decade ago and we are still awaiting delivery of the first batch. Why? Having lived through Bofors times I am fully aware that one reason for caution in defence deals is proven bribery in that deal. The money trail led for once right to the Prime Minister’s family. And, to this day, the Congress party has been unable to explain why an Italian fertiliser salesman would be bribed by an armaments company unless it was because he had special influence at the very top. The Bofors ghost haunts the Gandhi family for this reason.
Is this why Rahul Gandhi continues to try and prove that Narendra Modi has ‘stolen’ Rs 30,000 crore (Rs 45,000 crore in his latest speech) to put in the pocket of ‘his friend’ Anil Ambani? It is difficult to believe that so much money could have disappeared from a deal that is worth less than Rs 60,000 crore, but if it is true, let us see some evidence. It is not good enough to wander about waving a toy Rafale jet on the campaign trail. It is not good enough to say that the Supreme Court is lying, that the Prime Minister is lying, that the Defence Minister is lying and that the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General) cannot be trusted.
The Congress president’s team includes Arun Shourie, who was once famous for investigative journalism. Let him do what Chitra Subramaniam did in the Bofors case. She traced Bofors bribe money to Swiss bank accounts in the name of Mr and Mrs Quattrocchi. If the Prime Minister has ‘stolen’ Rs 30,000 crore and put it in Anil Ambani’s pocket, it is time to see where this pocket is. For the rest, all we know is that the Prime Minister was going over the head of the Defence Minister to deal directly with the French government. So? Why would the Prime Minister’s Office not be involved in so important a defence deal?
What is far more imperative is to learn when the Air Force will get their first batch of Rafale fighters and how soon we can hope to see the rest. It is shameful that the Air Force does not have the modern fighters it so badly needs. Shameful that there really has never been a full inquiry into the number of pilots India has lost because their planes or choppers mysteriously crashed. A PIL in the Supreme Court says that in the past 10 years, 75 helicopters and fighter planes have crashed. Was this the reason why the government was trying to open defence production to the private sector?
It is not just the Air Force that struggles along without the modernisation it needs. The Army and Navy fare no better. During the Kargil War, we found to our horror that the Army did not have enough coffins to bring dead soldiers back from that mountainous battlefield. This was deplorable 20 years ago and it is much more so now. The armed forces need much more than crocodile tears.
Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @ tavleen_singh