Has Carla Bruni’s charm worked in India?
That the Sonia Gandhi-led administration ( for let us face reality, rather than cling to the legal fiction that any minister other than - perhaps - himself sees Manmohan Singh as the boss) is uninterested in going the China route of technological self-sufficiency has been once again illustrated by the decision to award the 126-aircraft contract to the French or to a French-led consortium. A senior Indian politician, who seems to have been given information from a rival country’s sources once it was clear that France was in the driver’s seat on what is expected to balloon into a $18 billion contract, has publicly accused France’s First Lady Carla Bruni of having intervened with Italian-born Sonia Gandhi in order to ensure that the contract went to Paris in one form or the other, something that has now happened. For more than a year, reports have been swirling around Raisina Road that “Number Ten” ( the 10 Janpath residence of the all-powerful UPA chairperson, who was born in Orbassano in Italy but has made India her home for four decades) was in favour of the French option, although such reports were not accompanied by any proof. It may be that Sonia Gandhi is simply being made the target of a smear campaign, so hopefully both she as well as Bruni will clarify the nature of their contacts and discussions before gossip spreads about the relationship that she shares with the Maino family, who are frequent visitors to India. Of course, given the timidity of the Indian media on all negative matters relating to Sonia Gandhi, the allegation made by Dr Swamy, the Indian politician close to both China and the US, has gone almost totally unreported.
In the interests of transparency, let it be stated that this columnist favoured the Swedish option in the aircraft contract. The reason for this is the fact that the Scandinavian countries are far less hidebound than the EU core of France and Germany in their relations with former colonies of the Europeans. An India-Sweden technological alliance, followed by other linkages with Finland and Norway, could enable the Scandinavians to compete with the rest of Europe, while giving India a massive leg up in technological upgradation. Further, in the case of the Swedish option, India could have become a shareholder of the company producing the Gripen military aircraft, thereby ensuring that it enters as a player in the international market.
The French ( and the French-led European consortium) are far more stingy with sharing of technology than the Swedes would be. The geopolitical benefits of buying either of the two aircraft short listed by the Ministry of Defense would be minimal, given that past experience shows that for the Franco-Germans, cooperation is a one-way street, in which India makes the substantive concessions and the Franco-Germans respond by anodyne phrases and state visits, Obama-style. Going the “Tata way” would have been best. Ratan Tata, the visionary boss of the House of Tatas, bought over Jaguar-Land Rover and thereby ensured a world-class technology boost for all the vehicles produced by the conglomerate. Had India become a major stakeholder in SAAB as part of a deal to buy the Gripen, such an advantage could have come to the aerospace sector as well.
As for the US, there is no doubt that in geopolitical terms, buying US aircraft would have been best. Certainly, sources on Raisina Hill say that this was the early preference of the small group around Prime Minister Singh. However, the US side refused to relent on the numerous conditionalities that they loaded onto the purchase. Some of these would have blocked the delivery of spares during crisis situations, exactly the period when they are most needed. Others would have opened the way for intrusive US inspections on air force bases across India. This country is not Pakistan, and public opinion would not stand for it being declared a free area for US personnel. The Obama team ( following the Clinton playbook) was even pushing for a SOFA,
that would give immunity to US personnel operating in India. Such an agreement would have led to the impeachment of the Prime Minister and the Defense Minister by the Parliament, and both wisely declined the honour. Tempers were not lowered when Defense Secretary Gates came calling and insisted on India accepting the same conditions that Oman or Kuwait would in military purchases from the US. The fact is that India stands on a level different from any other country except China and the US itself, and until Washington understands and operationalises that, it will continue to lose contracts in India.
What about the Russians? Much of the Indian Air Force fleet is from Russia, and it may therefore have made sense to once again turn to Moscow. However, the experience with Moscow over the past decade has been disappointing. All that the Russians seek is money,and lots of it, which is why the costs of their equipment and spares have ballooned year on year. Also, there seems to be different lobbies in Russia, and a powerful US-EU lobby ( led by Presidenrt Medvedev) is pushing for India to accept the same terms as are being offered by the NATO powers. That this would shut Russia out of the Indian market seems to have escaped those in Moscow who take their cues from the NATO powers. While some projects are being done jointly with Russia, each of these has been subjected to sabotage by the NATO lobby within Russia, the result of which has made that country an unreliable partner for India. Had the Russians followed the Vladimir Putin line of policy autonomy, it would have been the best partner, even better than the Scandinavians. However, it seems that Putin is losing ground in his country to the muscular lobby that seeks a return to the Yeltsin policy of going along with NATO apart from occasional verbal bouts of defiance.
$18 billion is a lot of money, and even half of that could have ensured that India enter the same league as China, which is fast developing superb military aircraft. However, this would have meant a turning away from the Sonia Gandhi line of close proximity to the NATO powers, especially France and Italy. These days, companies based in Italy are coming to India for contracts in large numbers, and even one of the world’s worst airlines, Alitalia, has been given prize slots into and out of India by former Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel, who is a close friend of the Nehru family. As this columnist can testify, even the Business Class in Alitalia is worse than a bullock cart. On one flight from the US to India, the aircraft made an unscheduled stopover in Karachi, where the Indian passengers were forced to remain on board for hours without even a snack. This seems to be Italy’s time in Indian and also that of France.
In the absence of proof, it would be wrong to blame Sonia Gandhi for the many contracts that entities from the two countries are getting in India. However, gossip about the alleged business activities of her two sisters floats around the internet (the conventional media being silent, in view of the Income Tax and other repercussions of annoying VVIPs in India) to the fury of Home Minister Chidambaram and Finance Minister Mukherjee, who are ever vigilant at protecting the interests of The Family and are each looking forward to soon replacing Manmohan Singh as PM.
—The writer is Vice-Chair, Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair & Professor of Geopolitics, Manipal University, Haryana State, India.