Washington, Feb. 5: When Pratibha Patil travelled to Europe last October, she and others in her entourage had a pleasant surprise in the sky. At one point along the air space that the Presidents flight was using, half a squadron of Eurofighters appeared on both sides of her Air India plane.
In the graceful style of these sleek war machines, they escorted the presidential aircraft to its safe landing at Patils next destination. Even so, those manning the Eurofighters could not resist showing off.
When the Eurofighters displayed the prowess of this advanced new-generation, multi-role combat aircraft to the President, members of Parliament and senior officials accompanying her, New Delhis quest for 126 planes of its kind could not have been far from the minds of their pilots.
The competition for the biggest military aviation deal in history, which began 11 years ago when the defence ministry initiated its request for information or RFI, had just entered its final and decisive phase.
But the impromptu decision to send the Eurofighters across European skies to impress the President was typical of what cost some rivals of Dassault Aviation — last weeks winners — the lucrative Indian Air Force contract.
It was somewhat reminiscent of Henry Kissingers disastrous invitation to defence minister Jagjivan Ram to visit Washington in 1971 as the sub-continent was heading into war, as recounted by Rukmini Menon, who was then joint secretary for the US in South Block.
Why should I visit Washington? Ram asked a non-plussed Kissinger and proceeded to tell him how American arms supplies had emboldened Pakistan to ruthlessly suppress East Pakistanis.
Partly, it was a similar approach that resulted in Boeings F-18E and Lockheed Martins F-16E being turfed out of the competition for the IAF deal earlier in the race. Not solely with the multi-role combat aircraft deal in mind, the Obama administration had made too much noise bereft of substance about the first state visit of his administration and Barack Obamas first state dinner in honour of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
There was a time when Indias rulers could solely be influenced by gimmicks. But theatrics and atmospherics can no longer substitute hard policy options. This is one lesson New Delhi has hopefully absorbed firsthand from intense, albeit under the radar interaction with Israelis — especially in defence matters — in the last 20 years.
Then there was A.K. Antony, whom the losers in the bid for the IAF deal had not reckoned with. Antony, by nature, is averse to being the public face of decision-making. This has been the case throughout his tenure as defence minister, especially during scandals such as the Adarsh housing scam that rocked the army. Each time it was clear that the defence minister had made up his mind, but the decisions were put out as if they were taken elsewhere, along the proper channel.
Such an approach came through clearly in his most detailed statement on January 31 on the controversy about the army chiefs age. Ending months of virtual silence in the matter, Antony blamed the army for sitting on the problem for 36 years and then dealing with it in its own wisdom. So much so the army chief Gen. V.K. Singh had to agree with the minister.
Antony has maintained in public throughout that the multi-role combat aircraft acquisition process is a technical matter that would be decided by professionals in uniform. But such a public position overlooks the reality that Antonys core support team in his ministry is much more ideological than in any other wing of the present government. Like civil servants, men in uniform are not immune from ministerial winds blowing in a particular direction.
Ideological considerations have prevented Antony from visiting Israel and from signing at least three defence agreements with the Americans which his core team views as compromising Indias strategic autonomy.
If the Russian plane on offer, MiG-35, had not clearly failed the tests, it was conceivable that it would very much have been in the reckoning. With the Russians out of the way, it did weigh with the political leadership in the defence ministry that France favours a multi-polar world and that India is a beneficiary of such an approach.
France won the bid for the entire order because it supplemented the requirements of the global tender with sweeteners that in the real world of strategic engagement, only three countries can offer India: Russia and Israel, in addition to France itself.
The collaborations that France has offered India in recent years in the field of intelligence sharing and upgrade are without parallel. Naturally, this is an area where co-operation cannot be publicised by the very nature of such engagement.
India and France face somewhat similar threats of domestic terrorism, vastly different from the threats faced by the US, Russia or even Israel. The assistance that Paris has offered New Delhi in preparing the country against such threats and the constant upgrading of their assistance went a long way towards creating an environment that favoured the French on the aircraft deal.
It was in direct contrast to Washingtons approach: the bulk of Indias intelligence community and key bureaucrats at decision-making levels believe that the Americans two-timed New Delhi on David Coleman Headley, their double agent in Chicago who played a major role in the Pakistan-supported terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008.
In addition, spread across Indias entire political spectrum that includes much of the Opposition, is a firm conviction that India would not have come out unscathed from the decision to conduct the 1998 nuclear tests if it were not for the steadfast backing that President Jacques Chirac — and Nicolas Sarkozy after him — offered India in an hour of great need.
It is not widely known that during the Kargil war in 1999, the French approved with lightning speed the adaptation of Indian Air Force Mirages in tandem with equally speedy Israeli supplies of laser-guided bombs which they delivered in Srinagar: without such French and Israeli support, India could have lost Kargil to Pervez Musharrafs perfidy.
No honourable Indian in uniform can forget that in such a situation, the US or Britain would have probably suspended all military supplies to the combatants to prove their bona fides as honest brokers for peace.
Policies may be the result of collective decision-making in governments, but within that framework, individuals do matter. One such individual who has left a mark on Franco-Indian relations is Jean-David Levitte, whose critical role in securing the Rafale deal for his country will never become a matter of public record because of the nature of his job.
Levitte is diplomatic adviser and Sherpa to Sarkozy, who made amends for the temperamental mistakes during his Presidents first visit to India as chief guest during Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi and organised a second trip that turned out to be one of most productive and substantive visits by any head of state to India.
Levitte was senior diplomatic adviser to Chirac too when Brajesh Mishra, the then principal secretary to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, flew to Paris as his first stop abroad seeking diplomatic support after the Pokhran II nuclear tests. Mishra found such support in Paris before he extracted reluctant support from Moscow.
Soon afterwards, Levitte became French permanent representative to the UN in New York where he led, along with Russia, a split among the five permanent members of the Security Council on the issue of punishing India through sanctions on the nuclear issue. Later he was ambassador in Washington.
Two of the countries which have been after the multi-role combat aircraft deal, the US and Britain, were at that time in the forefront of efforts in the Security Council to choke India into submission and roll back its nuclear programme.
Within the political and civilian leadership of Indias defence establishment, there has been no doubt that other things being equal, India should reward a friend in need, in this case, France.