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GEORGIE IN THE SKY

Since he cannot make the MiG-21 a safer machine by flying once in it, the defence minister, Mr George Fernandes, should refrain from such gimmicks.

A minister is responsible for formulating policy. It is not his job to look into the nittygritties. Thus there is something very funny about the defence minister, Mr George Fernandes, donning an airmanís overalls to demonstrate that the MiG-21 is a safe aircraft. The MiG-21, it will be recalled, has been having a very bad run. There have been too many accidents in which too many lives have been lost. It can be argued that the life of a member of the armed forces is forfeit to the state. But the fact of the matter is that a soldier, or an airman or a naval officer is prepared to die in battle but to die on a routine flight during peace time is a different matter altogether. Morale among pilots flying the MiG-21 has been low, and justifiably so, after the series of accidents. But this did not warrant Mr Fernandesís sojourn in the sky on a Mig-21. The only episode comparable to this occurred when Mr Asim Dasgupta, the finance minister of West Bengal, took to regulating traffic in selected Calcutta thoroughfares. It was not an edifying sight seeing one of West Bengalís leading ministers doing the job of an ordinary traffic cop. Similarly, there is something totally bizarre about the defence minister going up in a MiG-21 to show that it is a safe aircraft. The ostensible motive behind what Mr Dasgupta did and what Mr Fernandes has done is to display their sense of responsibility. What they achieved, however, was the exact opposite.

The smooth running of a government or of any system is dependent on each member or part of the system doing his or its job efficiently. Thus there is a distinction between being an airman and being a defence minister and being a policeman and being a finance minister. By trying to go up on a MiG-21, Mr Fernandes has made himself open to the charge of indulging in a gimmick. His flight achieved no purpose. One flight with the defence minister in it will not make the MiG-21 a safe aircraft. Mr Fernandes has attempted to win some cheap popularity with the pilots. A real leader of men does not need to do all this. Winston Churchill did not have to go up in a plane to boost the morale of the Royal Air Force pilots who were trying to win the battle for the British sky. Pilots in the Battle of Britain were dying by the minute, and Churchill preserved the morale by remaining on the ground and at the helm of affairs. He acted as a supreme policymaker should. Mr Fernandes, on the contrary and because he has nothing to offer, has chosen to be a poseur.

Mr Fernandes is known for pulling off this kind of gimmick. He has flown in the Sukhoi, stayed a night in a submarine and has flown more than once to Siachen. None of this was necessary. These are not things that a defence minister is supposed to do. That Mr Fernandes gets time to do all this suggests that he is not devoting enough time and attention to matters of high policy. It is precisely because, in the past, such attention was not given to policy-making that Indian defence policy is so ad hoc and directionless. Mr Fernandes should keep his feet firmly planted on the ground and leave the testing of aircraft to experts.

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