By B. Raman
The Government of India must press ahead with its last-lap negotiations with Dassault Aviation of France for the finalisation of the definitive contract for the acquisition of 126 Rafale multi-role fighters.
Now that the decision of the Indian Air Force to go for Rafale has been announced, attempts will be made by others who failed in their bid to sell their aircraft to the IAF such as the European consortium producing the Typhoon to create confusion in the minds of the Indian political leadership and public opinion about the wisdom of the decision to choose the French aircraft.
Arms trade is a dirty business and often a Psywar is waged with no holds barred to create suspicions in the minds of the buyer about rival competitors. We had seen this dirty Psywar in the run-up to our decision to acquire a modern jet trainer aircraft. Both British and French arms dealers and their agents fought a bitter Psywar against each other by planting stories which were meant to create doubts in the mind of P. V. Narasimha Rao, the then Prime Minister.
I was in service at that time and had personal knowledge of the way stories—which ultimately turned out to be false— were planted through politicians, bureaucrats and journalists to create doubts in the minds of the decision-makers about the integrity of those involved in the decision-making and of the decision-making process itself. As a result, there was inordinate delay in signing the final contract for the purchase of advance jet trainers.
The British particularly played a very dirty game by planting suspicions in the minds of Narasimha Rao through their contacts in the Indian intelligence community. It is quite likely that history may repeat itself and a similar Psywar may again start. The only way of pre-empting and preventing it is by pressing ahead with the negotiations with Dassault Aviation and signing the final contract quickly. The longer the delay, the dirtier will be the Psywar.
Analysts have already started discussing about possible strategic collateral benefits to India as a result of the IAF’s decision to go for Rafale. Two possible benefits have been highlighted—- a greater keenness on the part of the French to step-up their co-operation with India in the nuclear and space fields and a revival of the 1970s project for co-operation between the intelligence agencies of India and France to monitor developments in the Indian Ocean in the waters to the West of India.
The credit for giving a French orientation to India’s strategic thinking should go to Indira Gandhi. Her bitter experience with the USA’s Nixon Administration during the 1971 events that led to the birth of Bangladesh and the difficulties sought to be created by the US in the way of our nuclear and space programmes after the 1974 nuclear test made her turn to France for understanding and co-operation. At her instance, R. N. Kao, the then head of the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), our external intelligence agency, visited France in 1974 for meetings with Le Comte Alexandre de Marenches, the then head of the French external intelligence, Michel Poniatowski, the then French Interior Minister, and Giscard d’Estaing, the then French President.
Kao’s fruitful discussions in France facilitated the co-operation between the two countries in the nuclear and space fields and led to an agreement between the external intelligence agencies of the two countries for operational co-operation to monitor developments in the Indian Ocean. Their common targets were the fleets of the US and the Soviet navies.
The intelligence co-operation progressed in fits and starts till the assassination of Indira Gandhi in October, 1984. After her death, the operational co-operation lost momentum, though intelligence-sharing continued. No other Indian political leader after Indira Gandhi and no other intelligence chief after Kao and no other intelligence chief of France after Le Comte evinced similar interest and enthusiasm for operational co-operation between the external intelligence agencies of the two countries.
The interests of both the intelligence agencies have changed since 1984. They no longer have common concerns over the activities of the US and Russian navies in the Indian Ocean. If operational co-operation—-as distinguished from intelligence sharing—is to be revived in a meaningful manner, we have to identify new areas of common concern. Two such areas are the activities of the Somali pirates and the intentions, capabilities and activities of the Chinese Navy in the Indian Ocean.
There is already a mechanism for co-operation between the Navies of India and the NATO countries to counter piracy. Joint monitoring of the activities of the Chinese Navy is a subject of common concern for India and France that has not received adequate attention till now.
In the favourable strategic ambiance that is likely to follow the Rafael contract, we should revive and intensify the pre-1984 operational co-operation in the Indian Ocean — with different targets this time. Such a project for Indo-French co-operation need not come in the way of our ongoing strategic co-operation with the US. It can supplement it.