The Indian Defense Ministry’s announcement that it has shortlisted two European fighter jets, shutting out two American competitors from Lockheed Martin and Boeing, for its once in a generation purchase of 126 multi-combat aircrafts may be disappointing, but not surprising. This has as much to with what is seen as the technical superiority of the Eurofighter (UK, Spain, Italy and Germany) and Dassault’s Rafale (France), as much as New Delhi’s attempts to stay clear of perceived geopolitical undertones involved in buying Lockheed’s F-16 and Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornet. Despite the very real improvement in relations between India and the U.S., India seems to have fallen back to its longstanding instinct for strategic autonomy. In a domestic context where there has been an intense debate taking place over the last five plus years about India’s new and growing role as a rising power—especially about how close is close enough to the U.S—the “safest” course of action for Manmohan Singh’s government was to do what it did.
Simply put, a purchase from Europeans is seen in purely commercial terms, while any major deal with the Americans immediately takes on strategic and political meaning in India. Prime Minister Singh had already gone out on a limb in 2008 when he put his government on the line with a vote of confidence over the US-India civil nuclear deal. This unprecedented deal with a price tag of $11 billion had led to enormous lobbying over several years by all the potential suppliers, most noticeably by the American companies. From Washington, there was an implicit, if not explicit, expectation of “payback” for the landmark U.S.-India nuclear deal. No doubt, had the government gone with Lockheed and Boeing, there would have been loud accusations at home of India caving into American “pressure.” At least since 2004, domestic voices comprising a diverse group of Nationalists and Leftists have been at the forefront in urging India to stay closer to its traditional un-aligned stand in international relations.
For all practical purposes, the metric for gauging India’s autonomy comes down to proximity to the U.S. And on this question, the decades old consensus against close ties with the U.S. has clearly eroded since the end of the Cold War, opening it to hot contestation between old and new opinion groups. (more…)Continue Reading →