Into its final year in office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP-led NDA government has started the process of buying assault rifles and carbines for the Indian Army and 110 jet fighters for the Indian Air Force. And it has revived the Defence Research and Development Organisation’s Science and Technology Management Council under the chairmanship of principal scientific adviser K. Vijayraghavan, and the DRDO director-general’s powers to sanction projects has been increased from Rs 75 crores to Rs 150 crores. These initiatives are not the sign of a ruling party that is resolved to keep the armed forces in a state of battle-preparedness. They show that this government is turning back to the tried-and-trusted method of arms acquisition by shopping abroad and of strengthening the DRDO, the home-spun R&D wing with all the attendant faults. The government has been in more ways than one dithering on the all-important issue of buying arms and equipment for the armed forces, and this despite the ruling party’s chest-thumping jingoism. Is it a classic case of tall talk and zero action on a crucial issue?
It is true that India does not have a war on its hands, either with Pakistan or with China, despite the fact that the hawks in the BJP may desire a war with Pakistan while avoiding one with the more powerful China, but it does not mean that the needs of the armed forces can be put on hold or that the government can afford to dilly-dally over the matter. The government has been literally caught on the wrong foot because it was in a reverie of how to make India strong and mighty while neglecting the immediate needs of the defence forces. Prime Minister Narendra Modi came in with new and grand idea of wanting to make guns, tanks and planes at home under the “Make In India” initiative, and he and his think tank — if there is any at all — had been toying with the idea of creating a strong private sector capable of participation in the armaments manufacture sector. It seems that neither Mr Modi nor his advisers were aware that India cannot become a sophisticated manufacturer overnight, and that it will take a long time before it is in a position to do so. In its anxiety and desire to do things, the government has failed to think and plan, which is the way to go forward. The Congress-led UPA government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had literally dragged its feet in the matter of buying advanced fighter planes. The process began in 2005 and it reached a tentative end when France’s Rafale was chosen, and it was decided to buy 126 Rafale fighter jets. But the contract was not finalised.
When he visited France in April 2015, Prime Minister Modi made the impromptu announcement about buying 36 Rafale fighters off the shelf. It seemed that here was a Prime Minister who wanted things get done and cut through the bureaucratic red tape. It was a deceptive move. What the Prime Minister seemed to have had in mind was to scrap the deal altogether, and try and build the sophisticated fighter plane in India. It was a folly and nothing else. And now the Modi government is going back looking to buy a jet fighter built abroad, and it has gone back to the same big six manufacturers who were in the bidding game in 2005. The clock has literally moved back. The conditionalities might seem new, where India would buy 15 per cent of the planes off the shelf, and the remaining 85 per cent are to be manufactured in India with an Indian private sector collaborator. It might take another decade to work out the solutions to this demand which satisfies the government, the Indian private sector and the foreign manufacturers. It is a well-known fact that the Indian private sector is a novice in matters of armaments, whatever the ambitions and desires of the Prime Minister and the captains of Indian industry.
The example of the United States, and earlier that of the Soviet Union, shows that manufacture of armaments is closely related to scientific and technological breakthroughs, and it presupposes a strong research and development base. Neither the government nor the private sector in this country cares much for research and development in science and technology. The move to involve the Indian private sector in manufacture of armaments has been hanging fire since the days of the first NDA government under then Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, but the idea did not get off the ground. The UPA should have sealed the Rafale deal because the Indian Air Force’s need to replenish its fighter strength is indeed pressing, because there are now just 31 fighter squadrons in place of the “authorised strength” of 42. A.K. Antony, who had served as defence minister in the UPA government, and who was known to be “Mr Clean” when allegations of corruption had clouded the image of the Manmohan Singh government, did not want to take a decision in a hurry which could taint his immaculate reputation. Mr Modi should have just expedited the matter when he came into office if he really cared about the imperatives of strengthening the armed forces. But he did not. Mr Modi and Mr Antony become the proverbial strange bedfellows in not deciding on defence purchases.
There have been three defence ministers in the past four years — Arun Jaitley, Manohar Parrikar and Nirmala Sitharaman — but it was quite evident that it was Prime Minister Modi who was calling the shots even as he did in foreign policy matters, pushing external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj to the periphery. The defence minister, whoever it may be, is not the person who takes the final decision on the purchases of guns and warplanes. In this one-man government, Prime Minister Modi is the one who takes all the decisions. Therefore, Mr Modi clearly stands guilty of procrastination.