It is within the brief of the nation’s Defence Chiefs to extol the defence benefits of any addition of equipment and means of war to the nation’s weaponry to protect its borders. They are perfectly qualified to do so.
Problems, however, arise when they step out of this realm and start commenting about the economics of military purchases. Such decisions are made by politicians, and politicians are not always saints. The process is simple. The defence forces decide what they need and make a requisition for it. Their role ends there. Thereafter, the defence ministry handles the remaining aspects, including price negotiations and the politics of it. The presence of defence personnel at such negotiations is purely cosmetic. They have no role in the economics, contarctual aspects and politics of any such purchase.
But that is precisely what is happening in the Rafale deal which is being called the mother of all defence scams in India. Air Force Chief BS Dhanoa is on record saying it was the “prerogative” of the original equipment manufacturer to choose the offset partner and neither the government nor the Air Force had any role in it. On questions of costs, he said “There are some other costs…a lot of things can change. Inflation changes. Rupee is going down… You will come to know once the deal is over, how much money we managed to save.” Air Force Deputy Chief, R Nambiar, dismissed claims of a “scam” in the Rafale deal and called it a “much better deal” than the one negotiated by the Congress party. He even said that the new deal signed under the Modi government was 40 per cent cheaper than the one the Congress began negotiating in 2008. Air Marshal SBP Sinha, chief of the IAF’s Central Command too reiterated that India has got the fighter aircraft at the best price.
Former French President Hollande, as well as the number 2 of Dassault, which makes the fighter jets, have said that Dassault was forced to make Reliance Aeronautics Limited (RAL) an offset partner, which channels over 1,50,000 crore rupees to RAL – a company that has nothing to do with manufacturing fighter jets. Earlier Defence Minister Parrikar is on record saying that under the earlier deal, the planes would cost 715 Crores even after all price escalations, while the specifications remain the same.
Nambiar even lied when he said the IAF was consulted before the decision to purchase 36 aircraft as opposed to 126 as earlier negotiated. It is PM Modi’s unilateral decision, as even attested by Parrikar, to scrap the earlier deal of buying 126 aircraft and buying 36 of them for over twice the price from which the whole scam allegations flow.
Where do these facts leave the defence forces? The Modi government is being widely seen as diverting public money to fund crony capitalists in the Rafale deal. By making comments about the pricing, contracts and procedures of the Rafale deal, which are right in the middle of a dirty political row, the officers put the reputation and required apolitical ethos of the defence forces, as well as their own, at stake and both have taken a beating.
More importantly, as various commentators have pointed out, these officers have spoken under political pressure from a imposing government. Some others have said that they were also ensuring post retirement appointments from the government. In either case, by their conduct, the seniormost IAF officers have set a dangerous trend. The last thing that India needs is politicized defence forces. This could have disastrous consequences for the nation as seen in such conduct of defence forces in other countries. It is in the best interests of the nation for the defence forces to stay away from any shade of politics.
And, at the end of the day, contrary to the expectations of the ruling party, by their ill-conceived defence of the scam, by being led to comment on the scam aspects of the Rafael deal, these officers have only added veracity to the allegation of a massive scam in the deal.