An exhausted French government is probably seeing it as fortuitous that new Indian defence minister Manohar Parrikar's first foreign guest will be French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who arrives tomorrow in Delhi on a two-day visit. He meets Parrikar on Monday late in the morning. This will be Le Drian's third visit as his country's defence minister to India.
In January, the Indian MoD and Dassault Aviation will mark three years since the Rafale won the final downselect in 2012. A contract for 126 Rafale fighters remains in final negotiations, heaving and jerking across over 24 months. As the French minister arrives for what Paris hopes will be the last political push required to see the deal through, here's a quick round-up of six key developments that set out the state of play:
- On November 28 in Parliament, defence minister Parrikar made his most direct comment on the MMRCA negotiations, on which he is reported to have said, "Where defence acquisitions have almost come to end stage, we will stick to RFP (request for proposal)." In other words, while the new government focus would be on procurement routes that were reserved for Indian-made equipment or foreign equipment license-built in India, deals like the MMRCA would not be tinkered with. The MMRCA
- IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha has met defence minister Parrikar three times since the latter took office (the first was a courtesy call, and they didn't talk shop). At both of the other two meetings, the IAF chief stressed the 'No Plan-B' message initiated by his predecessor.
- While negotiations are largely complete, the issue of OEM liability for the 108 aircraft that HAL will build in Bangalore hasn't been ironed out just yet. Reports on this issue have only touched the surface. It's a far greater sticking point than its being reported to be (my next goes into specifics). This could take a while to fix. The French defence minister's team will almost definitely have something to add on this. We'll know Monday.
- As negotiations plod through the so-called final stretch, the political establishment is looking for a way to peg the Rafale deal as a shining package for Prime Minister Modi's 'Make in India' campaign (he wants to do this with the navy's P75I too). Apart from certain voices on the inside, the deal isn't politically contentious given that negotiations took place largely under the previous government. In that light, I hear the present administration may be looking to own the deal better if it needs to.
- It's been nine months since then defence minister A.K. Antony threw his hands up in Feb this year and said the Rafale deal had to be pushed back because of a funds crunch. His successor Arun Jaitley, who doubled usefully as Finance Minister for the six months he spent at the MoD, didn't quite clarify on budgetary flexibility except to say that funds for all priority acquisitions would be made available. That's saying a lot without saying anything at all. Like most things in the MMRCA so far.