Presenting conflicting and distorted figures on the financial status of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd is the latest facet of the Nirmala Sitharaman-Rahul Gandhi streetfight ~ a spin-off of the Rafale-acquisition controversy. Many a self-goal is being netted as a political football has been made of the nation’s premier defence aviation production agency. The defence minister is decidedly selective on money matters: she stirred the Rafale cauldron by insisting that the taxpayer’s money being paid for the French aircraft was “secret”, but waves the HAL order-book in the glare of publicity to reject the charge that the state-run unit had been short-changed in the Rafale rigmarole. Whether an order book serves to certify financial health is a matter to be determined, but even as Sitharaman and Rahul continue baring their fangs, the HAL management has reached out to its bankers to tide over its present cash crunch.

The Indian Air Force will only make payments against deliveries, HAL’s suppliers are threatening to turn off the tap in the absence of their dues being cleared. Rather than remedy the mess in which the defence unit is mired, and enable it to progress the several key projects in hand, the minister flies fullthrottle with all guns blazing at critics in the Opposition. That indicates that she accords higher priority to mounting a political defence of her government than to preserving national security. Rahul’s targeting is equally skewed, his Rafale assaults have been wayward, devoid of focus, and the “thinkers” in the forces are left wondering over the quality of the leadership whose folly could put their lives at risk. And they see few positive prospects being thrown up a few months from now. After all Arun Jaitley, Manohar Parrikar, and Sitharaman have proved as inept or worse, than A K Antony. And the earlier cushion of professionals worthy of four-stars is wearing thin.

As far as HAL is concerned, its dedicated, loyal, workers would hope that a silver lining does break through to the dark clouds hovering over their “giant”. Not all of them are directly politically created, an upgrade of professional higher management is sorely needed. That it is unlikely to emerge from within can be “seen” in the revised policy that permits the private sector to build military aircraft. A distorted sense of patriotism is what keeps faith pinned on the Tejas LCA ~ there is no more talk of 100 other fighters being procured from foreign sources.

The Kamov deal for Russian helicopters appears to be facing turbulence. On paper HAL has a lot “going for it”. Sadly it will take more than what is on “paper” (an order-book for example) to convince its prime customer, the IAF, of its capacity to deliver state-of-the-art weapons and systems on schedule. Less political, more capable, ministerial management is imperative: Sitharaman does not quite fit that bill ~ even if she can trade low punches with Rahul.