India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party has said the country would have been better placed to handle escalating tensions with Pakistan if it had acquired a new fleet of modern fighter jets earlier.
Last week, an Indian MiG jet was shot down in a dogfight with Pakistan. Despite the release of the downed Indian pilot on Friday by Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan as a “peace gesture” and mounting international pressure to de-escalate the crisis, intense shelling along the de facto border in Kashmir has stoked fears that the hostilities between the nuclear-armed neighbours are far from over.
Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, this weekend suggested that India’s aerial skirmishes with Pakistan could have had a different outcome had the country had more modern fighter jets, whose acquisition was stalled for years under the country’s previous Congress government.
Mr Modi finally signed an €8bn deal for the acquisition of 36 Rafale fighter jets in 2016, but it has been since engulfed in controversy amid allegations of crony capitalism. “The country has felt the shortage of Rafale jets,” said Mr Modi, “India is asking in one voice what could have happened if we had Rafale. First selfish policies and then politics over the Rafale deal have harmed the nation.”
His comments immediately provoked opposition anger. “Dear PM, have you no shame at all?” said Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in a Twitter post. “You are solely responsible for the delay in the arrival of the Rafale jets.”
India has been due for years to upgrade its antiquated air fleet, including phasing out its Soviet-era MiGs, which saw active combat for the first time in decades last week as the two countries engaged in their most serious hostilities since their war in 1971.
New Delhi carried out an airborne missile strike on Tuesday on an alleged terror camp on Pakistani territory, after a suicide bombing on February 14 that killed about 40 paramilitary police in India’s Kashmir region. The following day, Pakistan responded with an attempt to strike Indian military installations, and in the ensuing aerial skirmishes, the MiG was shot down.
Precisely what India hit in its missile strike remains a matter of fierce dispute. Pakistan claims the missiles fell harmlessly into the hillside, a version seemingly supported by satellite imagery from the region. But Arun Jaitley, the finance minister, said over the weekend that the Indian government did not intend to share proof verifying its claim that a “large number” of jihadis were killed in the strike.
India signalled its intent to modernise its air force well over a decade ago, when it launched a hotly contested international tender process to acquire 126 new fighter jets to replace its ageing fleet of MiGs, which had begun to crash with alarmingly regularity during practice missions. In 2011, India announced it had selected Dassault’s Rafale fighter jet as its preferred plane, but the negotiations over the precise details of the deal got bogged down and were never completed.
Four years ago, Mr Modi shocked the aerospace industry when he unexpectedly declared New Delhi was ditching the ongoing talks to acquire the 126 planes from Dassault, and would instead buy just 36 Rafale fighter jets directly from the French government.
That deal has come under scrutiny with the Congress party accusing Mr Modi of making the change in order to arrange a sweetheart deal for businessman Anil Ambani, who is supposed to be Dassault’s offset partner for the purchase.
As the politicians exchanged barbs in India, fighting continued along the line of control dividing the disputed Muslim-majority Kashmir region. Over the past week, at least 12 civilians have been killed on either side of the border, according to news agency Agence France-Presse.
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