Will India's New Govt Speed Up Multirole Fighter Deal?

Speculation is self-perpetuating. Who will be India's next Defence Minister? Will there be a major shake-up in the MoD? Are bureaucrats running to edit files that could incriminate them in a supposedly less forgiving set-up that takes office next week? What happens to the long list of unfinished procurements, many of them in their final stages, even if that phrase has lost much of its intended meaning in the Indian acquisition context? The truth is, everything came to a shuddering halt at the turn of the year, and hasn't moved since. But that isn't extraordinary. Election season this time has meant, either through force of rules that kick in, or by an understandable escalation of man-in-charge AK Antony's risk-averse approach, decisions got shelved. Thing is, this hasn't always been the case: in 2004, mere weeks before elections, the government of the time concluded a raft of high-value deals, including the Gorshkov and Phalcon AWACS. That same political coalition takes office next week, albeit with an enormously strengthened mandate. In the context of mil modernisation, I'd say that's a good thing.

Anxiety about what could happen to defence procurements initiated by the outgoing government may not be fully in order. Because as with foreign policy, defence modernisation follows a general thread of continuity. Procurement processes begun by one government usually see the next government follow through. I've been getting calls from a folks asking about whether the M-MRCA deal could see a push. Likely, yes. The outgoing defence minister made ambiguous indications about a 're-look' at crucial aspects of the deal, pertaining specifically to life-cycle costs. The Indian Air Force chief Arup Raha is reported to be planning a presentation to the new Prime Minister and the defence minister he chooses, likely early next month. It is clear that the fighter deal tops his list of modernisation priorities.

On their part, the French government and Dassault Aviation have spent the year showing the Rafale off even more, in a series of manoeuvers directed straight at India. It began in January when the IAF was briefed about flight tests of the Rafale in a new 'heavily armed' configuration. In April this year, two Rafales flew non-stop with a tanker from France to Reunion Island in the Southern Indian Ocean for an exercise, an event that the French Embassy in Delhi made it a point to flag up. Also, four French Air Force Rafales will fly in early next month for the Garuda-V joint exercise with the IAF over the deserts of Western India.

The incoming dispensation is perceived to be more sensitive to military needs, certainly far more than the outgoing one. We'll know what they do with that reputation this year. In its last tenure between 1999-2004, the coalition was hailed as understanding modernisation and military affairs better than any dispensation before it. A thundering mandate, that precludes the political sensitivity of tough decisions, means that the military may have some real reason to cheer for the first time in a decade. That's, at least, the hope.

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