By Bharat Karnad
Few Defence Ministers began their tenure with such high expectations and ended it on such low key with almost nothing to show for the two-odd years spent as the military’s boss, as Manohar Parrikar. Returning to Goa without making the slightest ripple in a ministry crying out for hard political decisions and implementation of even harder solutions, may be something of a record. Even so, were we all wrong in hoping Parrikar would do big things differently, logically, with oodles of practical good sense? For one as a graduate of IIT, Mumbai, it was expected that he would bring an engineer’s approach and problem solving methodology to issues of national security, especially those relating to the conventional forces that in many respects are mathematical in nature.
He started out promisingly. The MMRCA race was decided by the time the Manmohan Singh demited office. It only remained for the incoming BJP government to sign on the dotted line of a contract for the Rafale aircraft that would enrich France, the French economy, the French aerospace sector, and specifically, Dassault Avions, without doing much for IAF’s fighting ability. He did the unexpected, showing the greatest reluctance to sign a contract, Parrikar pondered more economical options in lieu of the Rafale. He came to the obvious conclusion that the entire ‘medium’ category in combat aircraft is bit of a hoax perpetrated by IAF. This may be seen in his exploring a Hi-lo solution revolving around the Su-30 MKI license-produced by HAL in Nasik as the high end fighting platform, and the indigenous Tejas as the low end bulk combat compenent.
His publicly observing that the price of a single Rafale can fetch the IAF three Su-30s, arguably the best multi-role fighter plane currently flying barring the F-22 Raptor, and his refuting the IAF’s charge propagated through the media that the Sukhois suffered from heavy downtime, by talking of its serviceability rate as comparable to any other aircraft in the fleet, suggested that here was a defence minister who was prepared to take Air HQes head-on. Then Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Paris trip happened in April 2015 and, voila! just like that, there was the announcement of a buy of 36 Rafales a ridiculous figure because it meant the IAF could do very little with it in terms of strengthening its force posture or warfighting capability. They were too few in number to operationally matter, and too costly to risk in hostilities, but may prove useful to Vayu Bhavan as a wedge to wangle the resources to get an additional 100-200 Rafales in the future. This decision marked Parrikar’s slide. He could not in good conscience act gung-ho about Rafale, equally he couldn’t be seen,or even politically afford, to oppose the PM.
This is a sidebar but why Modi made this decision remains a mystery, considering the Rafale makes little military, political, or economic sense. If, as is being alleged, President Francois Hollande lubricated the Rafale deal by promising Indian nuclear weapons designers access to the French inertial confinement fusion (ICF) chamber in Bordeaux so that India’s unproven and untested thermonuclear designs can be validated short of explosive underground testing, and also finessed, by triggering miniature fusion reactions in the ICF facility, then Modi has taken a big gamble.
Paris has not always delivered on its contractual or even secret executive-level agreements. Assuming they do this time, where’s the guarantee that the French won’t pass on the Indian ICF data to its friends and allies, thereby compromising the Indian deterrent? Moreover, is a paper promise of access to ICF, Bordeaux, worth the escalating costs of the Rafale, considering Indian scientists continued to gain from access to the Russian ICF in Troitsk, outside Moscow? In any case, Parrikar was never the same again. He chose thereafter to do what any lay politician has done as defence minister surrender to the autonomy exercised by the civilian bureaucrats running his ministry. Leaving it to the babus to do all but formally make decisions meant he sidelined himself, and wound up enmeshed in the Gordian knots of red tape he had set out originally to untangle. One is tempted to compare Parrikar’s fairly undistinguished time in office with that of the longest serving defence minister, AK Antony, in the preceding Congress Party coalition government. Unlike Parrikar, Antony, a lawyer, understood the pitfalls of decisionmaking and wary of babus weaving a web to victimize politicians.
Zealous in protecting his reputation for absolute propriety, he shunned all decisions concerning procurement of major military hardware Project 75i, MMRCA, howitzers, etc. Consequently, in his eight years as defence minister nothing was decided on the big ticket items, nothing was bought. In both cases, the usual rampaging waste of national economic resources was avoided but at the cost of weakening force readiness and modernization, by Parrikar because he permitted the civil servants to create an impasse at every turn, and by Antony because he deliberately avoided taking any decision at all.
Not sure whether Parrikar’s mode or the Antony operandi is better.