Soul-searching is needed: India’s ‘ship of state’ near breaking point

Soul-searching is needed: India’s ‘ship of state’ near breaking point
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Shankar Roychowdhury

“ ….domestic fury and fierce civil strife shall encumber all the parts of Italy….”
—From “Julius Caesar”, by William Shakespeare

With a slight change of the country’s name, this quote of Shakespeare’s can be applied almost in toto to contemporary India as well, where 2018 has been a less than glorious year. In the run-up to the general election of 2019, the country is seemingly at war with itself, caught up in a racing riptide of political, communal and regionally-oriented passions. India is increasingly coming to resemble a battered warship, shot to ribbons and reduced to a smoking hulk, dead in the water, inexorably drifting towards the fangs of a titanic iceberg with the survivors milling about on deck, oblivious to the catastrophe bearing dead ahead. Emotive socio-political pressure points have erupted in almost every corner of the country, on issues ranging from the entry of women to the Sabarimala shrine in Kerala, to closure of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid Ayodhya land dispute in Uttar Pradesh, and the brutal gang lynchings of Muslim citizens in the cow belt region by Hindu criminals styling themselves as “gau rakshaks”. In Assam, the first ominous signs of the reappearance of the United Liberation Front of Asom (Ulfa) over the compilation of the National Register of Citizens became evident with the shooting of four innocent Bengalis at Tinsukia; a general uneasiness in the Muslim community nationwide over the introduction of the Triple Talaq Bill; and a rising tide of crime and violence against women. In Punjab, a visit to Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib in Pakistan by a self-anointed “ambassador of goodwill” from this country was personally facilitated by the Chief of Staff of the Pakistan Army. His strident display of “Punjabiyat” on return from this pilgrimage has created uneasiness about a possible Pakistan-sponsored revival of the spectre of “Khalistan”. All these have tarnished the image of this country at home and abroad as a progressive and tolerant democracy.
In Jammu and Kashmir, there have been increasing clashes with the Pakistan Army and the paramilitary Pakistan Rangers along the Line of Control in the Kashmir Valley and the international border between the Jammu region of India and the adjoining region in Pakistan, declared to be a “working boundary” by the latter. The slogan of a “Naya Pakistan”, given by that country’s recently-elected PM Imran Khan, a celebrated cricketer and international “bon vivant”, now a devout born-again Muslim, will have to be tested against time.
In the “war” within our Parliament, the government and the Opposition have viciously clashed on just about every issue, and have often stopped just short of coming to blows. The raucous political cacophony has overshadowed one of the real crises that is facing the country — the parlous state of the Indian Air Force and the immediate necessity to staunch the haemorrhaging numbers of its fighter squadrons.
This will require the replacement of the Russian-built MiG-21, an “old faithful” mainstay which was also a prolific “widowmaker”, with a modern Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). After intensive trials and the evaluation of six foreign frontline aircraft by an Indian Air Force team over a period stretching over a decade from 2001 to January 31, 2012, the French Dassault Rafale fighter was selected. The contestants in the “Indian Air Force MMRCA Stakes” included the US F-18 Super Hornet and the F-16, the Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Russian MiG-35, and the Swedish Saab JAS 39 Gripen. But now, with critical negotiations under way between India’s defence ministry and Dassault Aviation, the manufacturers of the Rafale, there is an anxious concern in the Indian Air Force that the party and factional polemics in Parliament may ultimately result in the Rafale’s acquisition ultimately falling through as a political risk not worth taking in an election year. “Be Indian, buy Indian” is another slogan, (or “jumla”, if you like) from an earlier era, and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd is certainly among the crown jewels of our defence “navratnas”, closely interwoven into the fabric of national defence production. But nevertheless, grassroots user experience of its products in the Indian armed forces has sometimes been less than satisfactory and reinforces the necessity for constant improvement in quality control and standards of workmanship even in an old and established navratna. When (if ever) the Rafale is inducted into the Indian Air Force (though the sooner the better), Hindustan Aeronautics must be continuously strengthened and its quality control standards upgraded wherever necessary to ensure that the highest international standards are always met and maintained.
Constructive discussions on the urgent requirements of the Indian Air Force, the nation’s ultimate bulwark against all enemies, external and internal, have been conspicuously absent during the Winter Session of Parliament, drowned in the din of shrill, motivated, and often uninformed party-line cheer — leading even inside the precincts of the Lok Sabha. The petulant rejection of facts by political figures who should know better, and the juvenile delinquency on display by some is totally irresponsible and harshly condemnable. These antics reflect on a relentless pursuit of party interests at all costs. Elections 2019 promise to be a vitriolic event. The muddied flags of political parties can be cleaned by a simple rinse in any washing machine. But if their integrity and dedication to defend the territorial and social integrity of the nation are routinely impugned in parliamentary proceedings by mischievous politically-motivated innuendoes, the damage inflicted on the izzat of our armed forces and their commanders tend to stay more permanently.
Also, it must be understood that the “Eurofighter” alternative can no longer be considered a serious contender for the IAF.
Overall, the larger question still remains — how much more turbulence, stress, and strain can the framework of the Indian “ship of state” further endure on its “fearful trip” — without sustaining a traumatic structural failure? It’s time for some serious soul-searching by all well-wishers of this country.