Unless deliberate, or “directed”, the Chief of the Air Staff has deviated from the apolitical flight path of his military peers and entered a murky, turbulent, zone that is the dogfight between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the Opposition Congress over the Rafale deal.
While Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa was fully entitled to comment on the technical aspects of the combat aircraft, since price negotiations are not directly handled by the IAF there was little requirement for him to insist that it was a better price than what was secured by the previous government when processing plans to acquire 126 jets. The two deals are vastly different, one involved a technology transfer and joint production, the other a limited purchase of 36 units in a fly-away condition.
Such details need not detain the layman, and surely the defence minister, Mrs Nirmala Sitharaman, is more than capable of shooting down anything that Rahul Gandhi and his chorus might throw at the government. When the Bofors controversy “broke” in the late1980s, the then Army Chief, Gen K Sundarji had restricted himself to talking about the qualities of that gun, not about the alleged kickbacks. Alas, the present Chiefs tend to make comments that lend themselves to political interpretation ~ like the Army’s head calling for the Bharat Ratna for Cariappa at a time when Karnataka is heading for elections. It would not be in the IAF’s interests to get embroiled in the Rafale rumblings.
The French principal, and the domestic “partner” have both clarified their positions ~ let the political leadership do whatever else is deemed necessary, the air warriors would do well to stay aloof. It is intriguing that though the Rafale deal was sealed a couple of years ago the Congress party has opted to smell a rat only on the eve of the Gujarat election. Is it still smarting over the Bofors howitzer blasting Rajiv Gandhi out of the PMO, and Sonia’s bid to kick up a storm over “coffingate” falling flat?
Maybe not, but Rahul will have to present something more concrete than tweeting tricky questions to convince that the Rafale purchase is skewed. Allegations of corrupt defence deals are now par for the political course, few of them ~ Bofors guns, HDW submarines, Agusta Westland helicopters ~ have actually “stuck”. Yet the cancellation of the contracts following allegations of corruption negatively impacted the modernisaton of the forces and shattered their morale. Not that the politicians were bothered, their lives are never “on the line”.
Yet, if the government can seek political advantage from the “surgical strikes” the Opposition would feel justified in alleging “kickbacks” at the drop of a hat. That is the collective shame to which the armed services have been condemned. Not surprisingly, some brass hats have started “playing games” too.