On Tuesday, a decade after India decided to equip itself with a new fighter jet—replacing the MiG-21 —the process acquired a sense of finality. For all practical purposes, the French Dassault Rafale is the government’s choice. Each step of the journey—from the initial request for information (RFI) in 2001 to the announcement of Dassault as the lowest bidder—highlights interesting weaknesses in the country’s defence equipment procurement process in particular and strategic thinking in general.

Consider the timeline first. By early 1990s, the backbone of the Indian Air Force (IAF), the MiG-21, had outlived its utility. Apart from outdated avionics and weapon systems, the large number of crashes led to doubts about the jet’s airworthiness. By that time, the Pakistan air force had been operating F-16s for at least six to seven years. The MiG-21 is no match for the F-16. Yet, it took another decade for the RFI to be issued. In all, more than a quarter century will have elapsed between the realization that new planes were required and the first flight of an IAF Rafale across the Indian sky.

File photo of French Air Force Rafale manufactured by France’s Dassault Aviation. AP

This problem could have been avoided easily during the ongoing process. The US had offered India the F-16 and F-18 planes as medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA). India rejected those aircraft and for good reasons. With a little bit of imagination, it could have tweaked the MMRCA contract, imparting it a futuristic direction. The year 2005 marked the high-tide of the Indo-US relations. The civilian nuclear deal had just been agreed on; the countries were truly on the path to a strategic relationship—unlike the phoney expression it has become now—and high-level political negotiations on defence ties would have imparted it greater depth. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the country’s national security leadership could have held a sustained dialogue and asked the Americans for the F-22 Raptor—a fifth-generation fighter. Whether the Americans gave us those planes or not, an effort should have been made to get them and the ball thrown in the US’ court. Had that happened, it would have given India an air power edge and lifted it above the ruck of countries in the region. What needs emphasis here is that chasing equipment made in the US does not mean slavish acceptance of what it dishes out (clearly the F-16 and F-18 are goods past their sell-by date) but getting the most out of such deals. If buying jets from the US helps India further its political interests, then they should have been bought. Period.

That, however, would have required geopolitical imagination and discarding doubts about friendship with the US. Historically, India has never had that kind of leadership. India simply does not have the institutions that enable the grooming of such leaders. The National Security Council—established in 1998—is now another sarkari department. The one place where such ideas could have flourished—universities—seldom produce scholarly work that can spur strategic imagination—in leaders and citizens alike. The contrast with China is marked. While the latter rediscovers its ancient strategic roots (see Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power by Yan Xuetong, Princeton University Press 2011), powers ahead with its defence modernization plans and, in general, exhibits a confident worldview, India is busy creating roadblocks on the path to its progress. Even relatively simple matters such as sharing river waters with Bangladesh have been blocked by regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee. It is one thing to hanker for a position on the global high table, but an entirely different matter to create conditions to achieve that goal.

To be fair, it is easy to overlook the fact that it is for the first time in two millennia that India—as an independent entity, that is—is enjoying geographic unity, something that has been imagined culturally for long but has existed politically for less than 70 years. Under these conditions, the required imagination—at the level where it is needed most, among policymakers—will always be in deficit. At the operational level, it leads to a sense of timelessness: the false belief that adversaries will exhibit behaviour similar to one’s own; that perspective plans on paper will automatically bear fruit and, generally, that opportunities always abound. The acquisition of aircraft whose utility in the future will be limited is only one aspect of this much greater weakness.

Siddharth Singh is Editor (Views) at Mint.

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