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The Rafale effect: Make PMO’s primacy official?

The Rafale effect: Make PMO’s primacy official?

Too many cooks spoil the broth. That central message of the Rafale controversy also explained the uproar in the late 1980s over India’s Rs 1,437-crore purchase of 400 155-mm Howitzer guns from the Swedish manufacturer AB Bofors. Fears of scams and scandals demoralising the armed forces and affecting national security would be lessened if the end user alone selected the weapon, chose the seller and settled terms using his professional judgment. Jawed Ashraf, high commissioner to Singapore, would then be free to serve those neglected aspects of the India-Singapore connection from which so much was expected at one time without being nagged by ghosts from his stint in the Prime Minister’s Office.

That won’t ever altogether eliminate either corruption or suspicion of it. That endemic feature of defence deals became glaring when after protracted bargaining, Washington at last agreed to sell Rajiv Gandhi a single-processor XMP-14 Cray computer, but not the more advanced double-processor XMP-24 model that Rajiv wanted. The Americans complained that high-ranking Indian officials (including from the Defence Research and Development Organisation) who had played no part in the negotiations demanded a cut of the $20 million price when they were sent to collect the machine.

Those officials may not have expected Cray to pay the commission out of its own pocket. But Cray could sell India an inferior model costing less than the agreed $20 million, so that the loss would ultimately have been borne by the unsuspecting Indian consumer. The same logic probably motivated the Indian minister whose demand for an exorbitant bribe scuttled the ambitious Tata-Singapore Airlines joint venture project in the mid-1990s. He would have expected the proposed airline to make good the loss by cutting back on services and facilities. The deal fell through because, no doubt to the politician’s astonishment, neither the Tatas nor Singapore Airlines was unprincipled enough to shortchange the Indian public.

Such abuse being more the norm than the exception, it was no secret that voluntary recruitment to the Army’s ranks fell in the aftermath of the Bofors controversy. Rumour swept the wide swathe of territory from Bihar to Haryana and down to Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh from where most jawans come that bribes to the tune of `60 crores — which gossip doubled and trebled — had to be paid only because the deal was fishy and the product sub-standard. Lusty village lads who enlist would not trust their lives to guns that were said to be defective and shells that were believed not to explode. Experts like Maj. Gen. Jagjit Singh, author of Artillery: The Battle-Winning Arm, have since given a clean chit to the 155-mm Bofors gun, but there was genuine concern at the time that venal politicians, unprincipled bureaucrats and greedy middlemen had seriously compromised India’s security.

That fear rides again. Experience has made Indians too cynical to accept at face value the official plea that the confidentiality clause in the Rafale agreement bars the buyer and the seller from talking about the pricing and forbids the government to reveal details about defence deals. Given the ruling party’s tub-thumping about the Prime Minister’s “Make in India” slogan, all but fervent Bharatiya Janata Party loyalists will wonder why Narendra Modi abandoned the Manmohan Singh government’s much more nationalistic plan in 2012 to assemble 108 of these multi-purpose fighters at Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd after buying only 18 of them off-the-shelf from France’s Dassault Aviation. Instead, Mr Modi announced after meeting the then French President, Francois Hollande, that India would pay about `58,000 crores (7.8 billion euros) for 36 Rafale fighters. Why?

Rahul Gandhi may or may not be right in claiming that each aircraft will now cost three times more than the Manmohan Singh government had negotiated, but Mr Modi must have known that the choice of Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence Ltd as the French manufacturer’s Indian partner was bound to raise hackles. It’s absurd to pretend that “the Indian government has no role to play” in a bilateral agreement between two private companies like Reliance Defence’s subsidiary, Reliance Aerostructure, and Dassault Reliance Aerospace forming a joint venture called Dassault Aviation. French industry may enjoy that freedom but no defence company in India has any existence outside the realm of official sanction and patronage.

In the lay public’s thinking, we are back to the days of the Hindujas, Win Chadha and Ottavio Quattrocchi, innocent though they may have been. These developments would have caused anxiety about the country’s defence even if Mr Gandhi had paid heed to Arun Jaitley’s worry about “seriously compromising” India’s security and kept his lips sealed. The new purchase terms, abandonment of Mr Modi’s “Make in India” boast, and Mr Ambani’s precise role excite curiosity and concern. If grave matters of national security are indeed at stake, a responsible government should take the principal Opposition leader — which means the Congress president — into confidence. True concern for security demands bipartisan cooperation.

That rules out PMO activism. If L.N. Jha’s or P.N. Haksar’s one-man PMO once used to be a power in the land, it was mainly because at that time the PM was not. Now, “Make in India”, “Swachchh Bharat”, demonetisation and the timing of the Goods and Services Tax are all attributed to the PMO, not because the PM is weak but because he prefers immediate subordinates who carry out orders to established organs of authority manned (or “womanned”) by near equals. Yashwant Sinha, who held the finance and external affairs portfolios under Atal Behari Vajpayee, calls today’s PMO “the most potent and powerful office in the whole government”. If that is what Mr Modi is most comfortable with, he can upgrade and formalise its status. After all, the Roman emperor Caligula made his horse a consul!