On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally broke his silence about last week’s India-Pakistan hostilities. At an event organised by the India Today media group, Modi claimed that the “recent turn of events” – presumbly the strike on Pakistan’s Balakot region and Islamabad’s decision to return of Indian Air Force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman who was captured after being shot down across the Line of Control – reflected the impact of his government’s foreign policy. He also brought up Rafale, in an attempt to target the Congress.

“Today, all of India is saying that if we had the Rafale, then the result would have been different,” Modi said. It isn’t clear exactly what result the prime minister believed the French-made aircraft would have achieved, had it already been incorporated into India’s arsenal. The first Rafale jet is expected to be delivered to India later this year.

Modi was clearly attempting to blame the Congress for delaying the acquisition process. Despite the initial tender going out in 2007 when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance was in power, no deal had been struck for the 126 aircraft by 2014. The next year, when Modi was prime minister, he signed a deal with France to buy 36 Rafale jets under completely different terms. The Opposition has criticised the purchase, alleging that India is overpaying for them to benefit a business group.

However, it was an unusual way to play domestic politics when Modi claimed that last week’s India-Pakistan skirmish could have turned out differently had the Rafale been available. On Tuesday, Indian fighters bombed the site of a Jaish-e-Mohammad camp in Pakistan. In retaliation, a Pakistani fighter aircraft dropped bombs on Indian military instalations on Wednesday. In an ensuing dogfight, one Indian plane was shot down and its pilot captured by Pakistan. The Indian Air Force also claims that one Pakistani aircraft was taken down in the skirmish.

As is usual for South Asia, both sides claimed victory.

Picked up in Pakistan

On Saturday, Modi’s statement seeming to complain about the result of the skirmish was picked up by the Pakistani media. “Modi admits Pakistan Air Force superiority in air warfare,” read the headline of Geo TV, Pakistan’s most popular TV news channel. Pakistan’s ruling party, the Tehreek-e-Insaf claimed that Modi’s statement “confirms that Pakistan outmanoeuvred Indian Air Force in the recent skirmish”.

A day later, the Congress claimed that the “Prime Minister has himself questioned the air strikes”.

To historian and former Indian Army officer Srinath Raghavan, Modi’s statement was unneeded. “The prime minister is unnecessarily suggesting that Pakistan got the upper hand on Wednesday,” said Raghavan. “Simple point: there is no segregation of audiences in today’s world. Something delivered for a domestic audience can be picked up internationally. And if Pakistan is allowed to think they got the better of us, what was the point of the airstrikes?”

Raghavan noted that questions can be asked, but this need not be done in the media. “It is a question the prime minister needs to ask the IAF if he feels the MiG 21 [deployed on Wednesday to push back Pakistani jets violating Indian airspace] was not adequate,” he said.

ndian pilot Abhinandan Varthaman after crossing the India-Pakistan border at Wagah on March 1. Credit: PTI

India needs to modernise

Kapil Kak, a former air vice-marshal with the Indian Air Force, said that while this was a political statement criticising the Opposition, on another level, the prime minister was “right in a general sense”.

“A MiG 21 shooting down an F-16 is world record and a testament to the skill and presence of mind of the pilot,” said Kak. “However, the reverse could also have been true if the F-16 had known that he was being chased. If we had a Rafale, with it having both short- and long-range missiles, of course the Rafale would have done much better.”

HS Panag, former lieutenant general of the Indian Army argued that the prime minister had made a factual statement. “If you had better aircraft, you will get the better of the enemy,” said Panag. This, he explained, is not limited to the Rafale. “We need to have national security reforms, change the decision-making process and modernise the armed forces,” he said. “Not only Rafales, even rifles need to be looked at.”

India already has advantage

However, Rajesh Rajagopalan, a professor of international politics at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, disagreed with the contetion that having the Rafale would have drastically changed what happened on Wednesday. “Obviously having better and newer combat aircraft would help but that is not the reason for what happened,” explained Rajagopalan. “The imbalance in air power is already hugely in India’s favour. We are almost 50% more than that of Pakistan when it comes to combat aircraft.”

The problem was not one of hardware but tactics. “Political leaders should have thought through the next steps and been ready to respond to anything Pakistan would have done,” said Rajagopalan.