When Manohar Parrikar took over as India’s defence minister late last year, many defence pundits sniggered. What will a provincial politician from Goa know about the complex issues in the defence ministry, felt the high and mighty denizens of Lutyens’ Dilli. Those who have their fingers in the defence pie rubbed their hands in glee: here’s a tyro, an outsider to Delhi’s power corridors who would be easy to manipulate, they might have been thinking. Less than six months on, the smiling, not-so-articulate Parrikar has set the cat among the pigeons by breaking the nearly decade-long logjam in the procurement of crucial fighter jets for the Indian Air Force (IAF) and demonstrating the kind of quick decision-making many thought beyond him. The decision to buy 36 Rafale combat aircraft from the French company Dassault Aviation in ready-to-fly condition, announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Paris, was a classic example of the political leadership taking a bold, unconventional decision to meet an urgent operational necessity of the armed forces. In this case, a government-to-government deal was found as the means to breaking the logjam that had been standing in the way of the Indian Air Force (IAF).
In an interview to Doordarshan, Parrikar gave cent per cent marks to the prime minister for effecting the deal, thereby underplaying his own role in reaching this out-of-the-box decision. As he reviewed crucial projects and issues pending in the defence ministry after taking over, Parrikar quickly realised that the mega MMRCA (Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft) contract was going nowhere despite three years of negotiations between the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Dassault Aviation, which had emerged as L-1 (the lowest bidder) in a competition that had begun in 2007. The issues were too complex. The cost of buying 126 fighter jets was too massive—anywhere between $ 16-18 billion—for any bureaucrat to take a final call under the current Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP). The IAF, on the other hand, was pressing hard for a quick decision: it was worried about the rapidly falling strength of its combat fleet.
Parrikar, an IIT-Powai product, grasped the nettle, took the issue to the prime minister and made him understand the urgency for breaking the deadlock. Hours before Modi took off for Paris, the duo arrived at a pro tem solution: buy Rafale directly under a government-to-government contract, even if it meant ignoring for once the ‘Make in India’ concept. The prime minister—despite being the author of ‘Make in India’—backed Parrikar to the hilt. And true to his promise, told the French of India’s intention.
It’s no surprise that sceptics have criticised the decision. The carping has ranged from “It’s too little, too late” to “It goes against the ‘Make in India’ concept”. There are whispers that the Ambani brothers might have made a backdoor entry. But Modi and Parrikar put the interest of the IAF above everything else. It must be borne in mind that procuring 36 Rafales is a stop-gap arrangement. It is meant to arrest, only if temporarily, the rapidly falling numbers of aircraft in the IAF’s combat fleet. The government will have to work out a detailed plan to replace over 200 fighter jets that will retire in the next four years. Parrikar has already hinted in one of his interviews how he plans to overcome the shortage, but all that will come in the near future. At the moment, he has demonstrated a rare decisiveness in the defence ministry. Under A.K. Antony of the UPA, India’s longest serving Raksha Mantri, the ministry had come to epitomise procrastination.
Nitin Gokhale is a former defence editor at NDTV and the author of Beyond NJ 9842: The Siachen Saga