Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday claimed that the events of last week, which saw skirmishes between the Indian and Pakistani air forces and an Indian pilot being captured and returned, would have turned out differently if India already had Rafale fighter jets in its arsenal.
The first of these French-built planes is expected to be delivered to India later this year. The jets, which are intended to replace the Indian Air Force’s aging squadrons, have been tremendously controversial because of Opposition allegations about India overpaying for them to benefit a business group.
Over the last week, Modi has been criticised for largely staying silent about the tensions between India and Pakistan. This allowed Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan to seize the public relations advantage.
But at the India Today Conclave in New Delhi on Saturday, Modi opened up about the events, implying that the way things turned out was a vindication of his government’s foreign policy. He criticised the Opposition for putting questions to the government on its actions. “One of the challenges before the country is some people opposing their own country,” he claimed.
He also brought up the Rafale.
“Today, the lack of Rafale is being felt,” Modi said. “The country is saying in one voice that had we had the Rafale [fighter jets] now, what all could have happened? Putting self-interest and politics before Rafale has seriously hurt the nation.”
The comment is not self-explanatory. It could mean many things, with various implications. Here are a few questions it brings up.
To understand what Modi’s was referring to, take the three parts of his statement separately: a delay, “self-interest and politics”, and “what all could have happened” if India had Rafales.
What did Modi mean by ‘lack of Rafales’?
First he talks about the “lack of Rafales”.
This could be taken as a reference to the lengthy process that the previous Congress-led government undertook while it was attempting to acquire a modern fighter jet. Despite the initial tender going out in 2007, it had still not finalised a deal by 2014.
Modi came to power that year. By 2015, he had signed a deal with France to buy 36 Rafale jets under completely different terms, rather than the 126 that the tender had originally envisioned. Though the Modi government at the time claimed that it would get the jets on a quicker timescale than under the proposed Congress-era deal, the Comptroller and Auditor General has pointed out that the planes are arriving in about the same window.
The Comptroller and Auditor General also noted inordinate delays in the process relied on by the previous government. If this was what Modi was referring to, it seems likely his criticism rests on solid ground.
But his subsequent comment muddies the waters.
What did Modi mean by ‘self-interest and politics’?
Though there was some criticism of how long the Congress-led government was taking to acquire new jets in the years it was in power, it was rarely a matter of political discussion. This means that Modi’s comments about “self-interest and politics” being put before Rafale causing a major loss to the country could only be a reference to the current criticism of the Rafale deal. There are questions about the Rafale’s price and about the involvement of industrialist Anil Ambani.
In other words, Modi could be saying that, by simply questioning the terms of his highly unusual deal – which involved repudiating the manner in which the Indian government acquires jets – the Opposition is causing a major loss to India.
This is a highly problematic statement, one that is easily countered by the BJP’s own criticism of the Congress’ Bofors deal and other defence deals since. If simply asking questions about a defence deal amounts to hurting the country’s interest, the BJP would be as guilty of doing so as the Congress.
What did Modi mean by ‘different results’ if India had Rafales?
Many questions remain about last week’s skirmishes between India and Pakistan.
It seems unlikely that Modi was referring the Balakot strike on February 26, when the Indian Air Force directed bombs at a spot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which, according to the Indian government, destroyed the camp of terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad near Balakot. As per India, this effort was a complete success. The mission destroyed “whatever we intended to destroy”, said Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor. Pakistan has disputed this, saying the Indian bombs fell on empty, forested land.
It is much more likely that Modi was talking about the events of the following day, when the Pakistan Air Force crossed the Line of Control and attempted to bomb Indian military installations. This attempt was followed by a dogfight between the two air forces. This ultimately resulted in at least one Indian jet being shot down by Pakistan, and its pilot being captured by the Pakistanis.
Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was released on Friday, but his capture blunted the Indian euphoria about the success of the Balakot attack. Though it cannot be said for certain, it seems evident that Modi’s comment were a reference to this situation, with the suggestion that it could have turned out differently.
Is this a suggestion that the Indian Air Force did badly?
India has tried to portray the sequence of events as being an unqualified success, aside from Abhinandan’s capture. In this view, Indian jets successfully destroyed a camp full of terrorists and responded to Pakistani aggression by shooting down an F16, although India then also lost a jet and its pilot was captured in the process.
Modi’s comments make it clear that he would have liked a different result. If Modi was referring to the fact that Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s jet was shot down, the government must explain what it believes could have happened differently if India had Rafales.
How would things have gone differently with Rafale?
The actual answer to this would be a technical discussion that is complicated by a hypothetical situation, one that Livefist examines closely.
It does not seem wise to discuss such a scenario, and indeed it seems completely improper for the prime minister to do so in order to score a political point, just a day after a captured Indian pilot was returned. But since Modi brought it up, it is incumbent on him to explain himself.
Is Modi saying that Abhinandan would not have been shot down at all? Or is he saying that despite the dogfight, it is likely that in a Rafale, the pilot would have returned to Indian territory? Could Modi be saying that the combat with the Pakistani fighter jets would have been better handled with a Rafale (and questions about why India was using the older MiG 21s)? Or is Modi suggesting that simply having Rafales would act as a deterrent, even though Pakistan has F16s?
This may seem like nitpicking if not for the fact that the prime minister himself made the statement. Only if it is made clear what went wrong with the dogfight can Indians come to a conclusion on how a different variable, in this case having Rafale jets, would have changed the course of events.
If answering these questions accurately would involve giving away secret details about Indian Air Force tactics, why did Modi bring up the Rafales at all?