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BEYOND BOFORS

- What India’s new ambassador to Norway must look out for

Here is a quiz. Which South Asian country’s defence chiefs create diplomatic ripples when they retire, resign, or are reassigned to political jobs or important slots outside the realm of defence? The logical and common-sense answer would be Pakistan. But the recent movements of top men in uniform under the United Progressive Alliance government’s rule have shades of Pakistan applied to India, although the flavours of the defence services leadership remain vastly different in Rawalpindi and New Delhi. The latest UPA move that has created extraordinary interest abroad is the appointment of the retired air chief marshal, Norman A.K. Browne, as ambassador to Norway.

Admiral Nirmal Kumar Verma, retired chief of naval staff, is already high commissioner in Canada. Earlier, the UPA government sent his predecessor, Admiral Sureesh Mehta, as high commissioner to New Zealand. Unlike their appointments, however, Air Chief Marshal Browne’s choice has implications that go beyond the borders of the host country.

His actions, role and the signals he sends out, intentionally or otherwise, will be closely watched in all the Nordic countries, not just in Oslo where he is to be accredited shortly. When the UPA government announced his appointment on April 29, this columnist was in Sweden, which has followed and scrutinized Browne’s actions as chief of air staff during the two and a half years that he held the post until December 31 last year.

Sweden’s special interest in India’s chief of air staff stemmed from its bid for the Indian Air Force contract for 126 medium, multi-role combat aircraft. Although Sweden’s Gripen lost the bid earlier than Typhoon and before Rafale made the short-list for the final lap — and quite early into Browne’s ascent to the top command of the Indian air force — there was a latent undercurrent of conviction in Stockholm that the last word on the MMRCA selection was yet to be pronounced.

Sweden’s interest in the top leadership of India’s defence personnel is not confined to the chief of air staff. Admiral Devendra Kumar Joshi, who recently became the first navy chief to resign, assuming moral responsibility for naval accidents, is as much of a hero in Sweden as in India, although for different reasons.

In the eyes of the Swedes at decision-making levels in the government and in industry, many of whom are currently taking a keen interest in strengthening relations with India, Admiral Joshi has acquired a special place with distinction. That is because, last year, he became the first chief of any arm of India’s defence services to visit Sweden since General Krishnaswamy Sundarji travelled to Stockholm way back in 1986. Joshi’s decision to visit Sweden is seen in Stockholm as an act of bravery born of deep conviction. In doing so, he took a crucial step within the defence establishment towards burying the ghost of Bofors. It had become an albatross in quality defence procurement and undermined the strategic advantages of a military relationship with Stockholm. Although such a step had no political fallout nearly three decades after the bribery scandal was exposed, no one before Joshi had the courage of conviction to do so.

In Stockholm, last week, this columnist came across many instances of how the Swedes responded handsomely to Joshi’s gesture, reflecting a genuine desire among them to put the bilateral relationship damaged by Bofors back on track. These episodes reflect an awareness that until the Bofors scandal, relations between India and Sweden represented a friendship to be emulated by others, replete with high-level visits, steady investments, development assistance tailored for grassroots benefits for the poorest of the poor and a commitment to shared ideals.

Many Swedes still recall Indira Gandhi’s catchy line at the first ever global environment summit in Sweden in 1972 that “poverty is the worst form of pollution”, and no one minded that she had cleverly tweaked Mahatma Gandhi’s equally famous assertion that “poverty is the worst form of violence”. Indira Gandhi’s statement represented the essence of what cooperation between India and Sweden was about, cooperation whose potential was unfortunately undercut by the Bofors bribery.

Admiral Joshi’s visit, according to ministry of defence officials in South Block, was the subject of several reviews and thought over several times before it was cleared. As a result, he reached Stockholm only two days before Sweden’s traditional holidays were to start. That is a season no Swede would want to spend inside an office. Instead, there is a national appetite for sunshine, which is a treasured rarity in that country.

Yet, everyone whom the navy chief expressed an interest in seeing cancelled his or her holidays to receive him. He called on Sweden’s minister of defence, the state secretary of defence and the supreme commander of the Swedish armed forces. Joshi’s delegation interacted with the most senior executives of the two biggest Swedish defence companies, SAAB and TKMS-Kockums. To risk a cliché and say that the red carpet was laid out for him would be an understatement.

Swedish naval facilities at Karlskrona and Muskö were thrown open to the delegation as if India was Sweden’s military ally or a fellow member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Partnership for Peace. The highlight of Joshi’s visit was an interaction with his own brother officers and technicians engaged in the construction of the carbon composite superstructure for the Indian Navy’s Corvette programme. It was a shot in the arm and a morale booster for the officers and technicians who had been working in an uncertain environment of Indo-Swedish defence relations.

The political leadership of the defence ministry, which took the final call on letting Joshi go to Sweden, confided that what ultimately clinched the trip was the navy chief’s forceful argument that India owed it to Sweden as a gesture of thanks for its naval surveillance through a joint effort for Mumbai’s protection. It is not very well known that such surveillance is undertaken jointly with India by SAAB, ever since the terrorist attack on Mumbai in 2008. But the decision also negates the perception that the ministry of defence under UPA II has been incapable of acting at all.

Admiral Joshi is not alone within India’s defence establishment in wanting to put the ghost of the Bofors scandal behind and revive strategic relations with Sweden. That, in part, is the reason for the extraordinary interest in Stockholm in Air Chief Marshal Norman Browne’s appointment in Oslo. It was during his tenure as chief of air staff that the only worthwhile effort in recent times to bring back the light combat aircraft’s Mark II project was undertaken.

Two years ago, Browne backed a visit by Vijay Kumar Saraswat, then chief of the Defence Research and Development Organization, to Sweden in connection with the LCA project. SAAB then assembled a team to get the Mark II project off the ground, but dithering in New Delhi and worries about the ghost of Bofors have since hindered progress in this case. Indeed, there are worries now that SAAB, which may well be tired of waiting for the green signal from New Delhi, may be about to dismantle this handpicked team set up at the time of Saraswat’s visit.

Against such a backdrop, the next government in New Delhi will have the option of moving ahead into a robust defence partnership with Sweden. If opinion polls are right, the composition of the next government will be free of any baggage from past defence deals or any previous connections with Bofors, and can start on a clean slate for the country’s larger good.