One day in 1992, principal information officer S. Narendra was briefing the media on prime minister Narasimha Rao’s visit to France. As a young reporter on the defence beat, I asked him if there would be a deal on the extra Mirages that the IAF had asked for.
Narendra, who would serve four PMs, replied with a smile: “Young man, the prime minister of India is not an Arab sheikh to take a fancy for a plane and say, I will have a dozen of them.”
Two and half decades later, that’s what has happened. The IAF had been asking for 126 jets, 18 of them off the shelf and 108 made at home with acquired know-how. The talks with the makers of the selected jet, the Rafale, was stuck over price and service guarantees when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, flying to France and convinced that the plane was top class, ordered three dozen off the shelf, and claimed a bargain. Neither did he seek transfer of tech, nor a licence to make them at home. The defence minister wasn’t consulted, nor the cabinet. And he wouldn’t tell us the price, not on our dear lives.
We have been buying warjets since 1964—MiG-21, MiG-Biz, MiG-23, MiG-25, MiG-27, MiG-29, Jaguar, Mirage, Sukhoi, and jet-trainer Hawk. In only four deals did we forego the licence to make at home—MiG-25, because we needed only a handful and the Soviets wouldn’t part with the know-how of the super secret spy plane; MiG-23 and MiG-29, because the IAF erred in not asking for licence; Mirage, because the treasury was empty when we made the emergency buy.
We crib about our brass hats’ fancy demands, our babus’ red tapes, our scientists’ boasts, our netas’ corrupt ways, the finance man’s queries, the diplomats’ worries, the auditors’ objections, all of which delay arms buys. The general staff in our forces draft qualitative requirements that run into hundreds of pages. The Defence Research and Development Organisation would offer to make a better one than the best in the world, and then go to reinvent the wheel. The South Block babus would keep files pending, the cabinet would seek views of everyone from the foreign office to the finance ministry. The former would worry about what neighbours may think; the latter would send a hundred queries on the expenses.
Once the cabinet gives an OK, the babus scout the world market, get requests for interest and proposals from vendors, and shortlist the offers. The brass hats ask the sellers to bring the machines to India at their cost, prove them in summer, in winter, in the rains, over the desert, over the snows, over the mountains, in the jungles. Then we haggle over the price, over technical upgrades, technology transfer, licence to make at home, service guarantees and spares supplies. Once a deal is settled, legal eagles draft contracts that run into thousands of pages. All these are taken to the cabinet at several stages, discussed, debated, doubted, and often shot down.
With all these, we had built up a formidable reputation—not just as the world’s biggest buyer, but as the best customer, the Lalitaji of the arms market. So much so that the world had come to look at an Indian order as the ultimate stamp of quality. Once a weapon is sold to India, the seller can expect half a dozen nations to buy the same ware, eyes closed. Russia sold MiG-29 to six others after Mikhail Gorbachev got India to buy them at a promotional price. Ten air forces from Algeria to Vietnam ordered Sukhoi-30s after Boris Yeltsin persuaded Narasimha Rao to try a few. The British got orders for their Hawk from Indonesia, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia after India ordered them. When they heard we were getting some secret stuff fitted in our Sukhois, Belarus and Malaysia asked Russia if they, too, could have the same. It is this reputation that has been squandered now with the Rafale order.