The nation has welcomed the arrival of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman from Pakistan’s captivity. Before falling victim to enemy fire, he had succeeded to shoot down a contemporary F-16 jet from the cockpit of his aging and almost obsolete MiG-21 Bison, a feat that must surely be a first in the annals of air combat.
But judging by the past, it is a harmless bet that once the garlands are off and photo opportunities over, Abhinandan and his successors will be back in cockpits of aging machines and our defense modernization continue to decay. This is the sad truth of our politics and democracy.
Recollect January 1963 when in memory of those killed in 1962, Lata Mangeshkar sang ‘Ae Mere Watan ke logon’ at Ramlila Maidan and PM Nehru shed a tear. At that time, there was genuine optimism amongst the uniformed fraternity that at least from then on, the nation would not send its men and women to battle without the necessary wherewithal to do so.
But nearly four decades on, as war cries once again resounded across the subcontinent from the heights of Kargil, we were witness to a press conference by the then Army chief who pledged that the army would do its best with ‘what we have’! Acutely the then chief was bemoaning the cumulative effect of the Bofors syndrome, which had left modernization and military procurement in the armed forces in a state of perpetual insensibility. A state which continues to this day.
Before the euphoria of Abhinandan’s return evaporates, there are three questions that the nation must supplicate of itself: Why was he fighting a war in a dated MiG-21 when his adversary was in a contemporary F-16? Why is the IAF so hopelessly short of its combat strength with many squadrons equipped with aged and obsolete aircraft? And do we have the courage and sagacity to stop moralizing on and politicizing defense purchases and let modernization of the forces get on, such that their morale is not dented?
This is an opportune moment for our polity to introspect and shorn of partisanship resolve that from here on, defense modernization will be a solemn commitment. History may well record such enlightenment as the Abhinandan Effect!