Saturday, November 18, 2017

Why govt was forced to but Rafale jets off the shelf

As the new political leadership was briefed about the impasse, MoD officials were told to try and break the deadlock as soon as possible since the IAF’s fleet of fighter aircraft was depleting alarmingly.

So, during a meeting of CNC on 25 September 2014, Dassault Aviation was told provide commitment on these two issues within 10 days. The Company demurred. As no response was received they were again requested vide letter dated 31 October 2014 that the requisite commitment may be provided within a week. In their response dated 7 November 2014, Dassault Aviation did not provide the confirmations sought by the CNC.

On 10 November 2014 meanwhile Parrikar took over as Defence Minister. While being briefed about the major pending projects and contracts, he realised that the MMRCA contract wasn’t going anywhere. Yet he wanted to give the French sufficient time to comply with the terms of the tender.

In December 2014, the French Defence Minister came visiting and as expected raised the issue of conclusion of contract negotiations in the MMRCA case with Parrikar who told him  that conclusion of the contract was held up on account of the vendor not confirming compliance to the terms of the RFP. This was followed up by a formal letter from Parrikar to the French Defence Minister stating that it would be really useful for Dassault Aviation to confirm compliance to the terms of the RFP and the terms of the bid submitted by them at the earliest. It was further mentioned in the letter that the negotiations can be carried forward and concluded thereafter if Dassault Aviation could be asked to depute a fully empowered representative to discuss non-stop with CNC.

Another  discussion with the delegation of Dassault Aviation was held on 12 February 2015. A clarification was sought from  Dassault Aviation  towards confirmation of compliance to the terms of the RFP and terms of the bid submitted by them specifically. The two crucial points, i.e. (i) the consolidated Man Hours (MH) based on which Dassault Aviation had been declared L-1 would be the same man hours required for license manufacture of 108 Rafale aircraft in India, and (ii) Dassault Aviation as the Seller under the contract for 126 aircraft for the IAF will undertake necessary contractual obligations as per RFP requirements.

The representatives of Dassault Aviation reiterated their stand on both issues and stated that while Dassault Aviation will be responsible only for delivery of 18 aircraft in a flyaway condition, they will not take ownership for the 108  aircraft to be manufactured by HAL as the Local Production Agency (LPA). On the issue regarding Man Hours , the  Dassault Aviation representative  stated that the company’s  stand has always been consistent that the Man Hours indicated in their proposal correspond to the related tasks performed in French Industrial condition. He also mentioned that only HAL being the Lead Production Agency can talk about the factor of multiplication to be applied to these Man Hours to convert the same to the Man Hours required for license production of 108 aircraft in India. Clearly, Dassault Aviation was using the loophole in the original terms of the tender to get away with shirking its responsibility towards the quality of the 108 jets to be manufactured in India.

Exasperated at the obduracy shown by the French company, MoD issued an ultimatum in on 20 March 2015 asking it to fulfill the commitment and confirmation on the two aspects mentioned above, ‘failing which MoD may be constrained to withdraw the RFP issued.’

However, Dassault Aviation, in its response dated 24 March 2015, did not commit on the two aspects mentioned above. Instead, the French Company stated that the estimate of consolidated Man Hours given by them is to be used by HAL to prepare its own quotation with respect to the completion of its (HAL’s) tasks under the MMRCA. The MoD realised that applying a factor of 2.7 on the Man Hours quoted by both Dassault Aviation and EADS (the company that quoted the second lowest price), the Total Cost of Acquisition (TCA), as on November 2011, would undergo a material change to the extent that Dassault Aviation would have no longer remained L1 vendor and would have become L2 vendor.

As the CNC members took the matter to Parrikar he realised the process had been convoluted to such an extent that, it would have been impossible to take it forward. He however knew from the briefings given by the IAF, there was no time to lose in acquiring fighter jets. The number of effective squadrons was going down rapidly. The IAF leadership also told him that they were happy with Rafale’s performance and would rather have the fighter in its fleet than scout of other options. Parrikar realised that another round of MMRCA kind of competition would have taken enormous time and effort. So he took the matter to the Prime Minister and briefed him about the necessity of procuring the fighter. At the same time, Parrikar told Modi, it would be legally untenable to go through with the MMRCA contract since the process had got vitiated completely thanks to Antony’s indecisiveness and a crucial oversight in the original terms of the contract.

Under the circumstances, there was no alternative but to withdraw the original tender, Parrikar told Modi since the CVC (Central Vigilance Commission) guidelines provide that negotiations cannot be held with the competitor who has come second in the contract (L2 vendor in officialese). The only way, the defence minister suggested, was to scrap the tender and buy a minimum number of Rafale jets off the shelf to fill a critical gap in the IAF’s inventory. The Prime Minister agreed and decided to talk to the French President about such a possibility during his upcoming visit to Paris in April 2015. The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) also gave its approval to the new proposal before Modi left for Paris on 9 April 2015.

That evening, alerted by a source about the possibility India scrapping the MMRCA tender and going in for off-the-shelf purchase of Rafale jets, I scooped the story on my blog NewsWarrior (, 10 minutes to midnight on 9 April, almost 22 hours before  Modi’s announcement of India deciding to buy Rafale jets off the shelf was in Paris. I however got the numbers wrong. My report said India would buy 63 Rafale directly from Dassault Aviation.

Eventually, Prime Minister Modi announced in Paris that India would purchase 36 aircraft. Shishir Gupta of the Hindustan Times was closer (as far as numbers were concerned). But I had the satisfaction of having reported about such a possibility before anyone else in the world, a fact that gives reporters an unimaginable high. Once our stories (Gupta’s and mine) were out, other news outlets started confirming the possibility. Most reports on 10 April 2015, waiting for the announcement to be made by Modi and Hollande, quoted my blog post and Gupta’s report as the source of the initial information.  

India’s decision, announced at a joint Press Conference between Modi and then French President Francoise Hollande on 10 April 2015, took everyone by surprise but under the circumstances, the Prime Minister had chosen the best possible solution.
Once the in-principle decision was taken, it was left to Parrikar and his team in the MoD to negotiate the eventual price for buying the 36 jets. Their confidence bolstered by the PMO, the Parrikar-led MoD drove a hard bargain with the French. But it wasn’t until another 15 months later—in September 2016-- that India finally signed the contract and got the state-of-the-art fighters at a competitive price.

36 Rafale Vs 126 MMRCA Package Comparison

As the contract was signed, inevitable comparisons about the costs India was paying for the 36 jets and the 126 planes India was supposed to have bought under the MMRCA deal, began.

The final negotiated price for 36 Rafale package, along with initial consignment of weapons, Performance-based Logistics (PBL), simulators along with annual maintenance and associated equipment and services was fixed at 7890 million Euros.  The average unit cost of Rafale aircraft thus turned out to be 91.7 million Euros (going by the Euro-to-rupee conversion rate at the time of signing the contract it meant each aircraft would cost Rs 688.30 crore and not Rs 1500 or Rs 1700 crore quoted by some analysts). In any case, officials involved in the nitty-gritty of the negotiations pointed out that the  package cost of 126 MMRCA and 36 Rafale cannot be directly compared to work out per unit cost as the deliverables in the two cases were quiet divergent.  Obviously, the CCS, briefed in detail about the absolute necessity of procuring the Rafale jets for the IAF and the cost comparisons, did not hesitate for a moment to clear the proposal, Parrikar remembers. “I must give full credit to the negotiating team for having diligently worked out all details to get a good bargain and the Prime Minister’s total trust in us” Parrikar told me.

What the former defence minister doesn’t mention however is his own steadfast belief that the cost had to be negotiated to India’s advantage. Recalls a senior IAF official involved in the hard bargain with the French: “It was Mr Parrikar who backed us to the hilt and even held firm in the face of tremendous pressure applied by the French when their President (Francois Hollande) was in Delhi as the Chief Guest for the Republic Day Parade in January 2016. Mr Hollande was keen to sign the MoU, inclusive of the finalised price, with our Prime Minister while in Delhi. We negotiated through the night until 4 am but the price Mr Parrikar thought was still high. So he took the matter to the PM and requested him to sign the MoU without mentioning the final price, which Modi promptly did. So on 26 January 2016, India and France signed a MoU for India to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets. Newspapers reports the next day said the 9 billion dollars deal would take some time to be finalised. It took another eight months for the contract to be signed. The team drove a hard bargain and obtained a hefty discount. As I wrote on my website, “The MoD-IAF negotiating team extracted many concessions and discounts to arrive at a price that is almost 750 million less than what was being quoted by the French side in January 2016, when the commercial negotiations gathered pace, almost seven months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced India’s intention to buy 36 Rafales off the shelf from France during his trip to Paris in April 2015.
“To bring down the cost, the Indian team asked French officials to calculate the deal on actual cost (Price as on today) plus European Inflation Indices (which varies like stock markets and is currently around 1 per cent per annum). The MoD has also capped the European Inflation Indices to maximum 3.5 per cent a year. In other words, if inflation Indices goes down (chances of it going down are more, looking at the current situation of European markets) India will have to pay less. Even if it goes up India will not pay more than 3.5 per cent increase.
“In the now scrapped process for buying 126 Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) floated the confusion reigned supreme in calculating the cost of the contract. After the French Dassault Aviation—makers of the Rafale Jet—emerged winners the UPA government had agreed with French officials to calculate the price on the fixed cost formula that allowed the company to include additional price of 3.9 per cent Inflation Indices from day 1 of the deal. So, had the India gone ahead with the UPA deal and the European Inflation Indices had fallen (as it indeed has), India would have ended up paying additional cost of inflation Indices (@3.9 per cent) which was already added at the initial negotiation itself.” 
The lower price apart, the Rafales that IAF will operate will have a weapon suite much superior to the ones proposed in the earlier case. They will include Air to Air weapons METEOR Beyond Visual Range Missiles with ranges more than 150 Km, MICA-RF Beyond Visual Range Missiles with ranges more than 80 Km and MICA-IR Close Combat Missiles with ranges more than 60 Km. The Air-Ground weapons include SCALP missiles with range in excess of 300 Km. The induction of METEOR and SCALP missiles will provide a significant capability edge to the IAF over India’s adversaries.

The Rafale for IAF will have 13 India Specific Enhancement (ISE) capabilities which are not present in the Rafale aircraft being operated by other countries. Three capabilities pertain to Radar enhancements which will provide IAF with better long range capability. One of the specific capability being acquired is the Helmet Mounted Display (HMD) through which the IAF pilots will be able counter many threats simultaneously. Another very significant capability enhancement sought is the ability to start and operate from 'High Altitude Airfields'. The 36 Rafale aircraft are to be delivered to the IAF within 67 months after signing of the Inter-Government Agreement. This delivery schedule is better than the delivery schedule proposed earlier by the French side by five months.  

But buying the aircraft is only the first step. After the initial purchase, the effectiveness of any aircraft is in the speed with which it can be repaired and ‘turned around,’ that is readied for another mission the moment it returns to base. In that respect, the IAF could not have negotiated a better deal.

 In MMRCA case, the initial PBL support was to be for five years for one squadron. In 36 Rafale case, the PBL is for five years for two squadrons with an additional contractual commitment for another two years with the base year prices kept intact. In the earlier proposed contract, the computation of PBL performance had considered cannibalisation of components from unserviceable aircraft. The Indian side was able to remove this clause without any additional cost. The PBL Agreement now stipulates that the company will ensures that a minimum 75 per cent of the fleet will always be available for operations. Moreover, Rafale has lesser turnaround time as compared to other fighter available. The Rafale aircraft can do five sorties in a day as compared to other two engine fighter aircraft available which have a sortie generation rate of three per day.

Rafale was the biggest of the complicated cases that the MoD resolved but there were other crucial pieces of equipment that India needed and needed as soon as possible. So all the hurdles in purchases of  artillery guns (M-777 howitzers from the US), attack and medium lift helicopters for the Army (Chinook and Apache helicopters from the US); frigates and mine counter-measure vessels for the Navy and Akash missiles for the Air Force, were removed in double quick time.

(Excerpted from my book Securing India: The Modi Way: Pathankot, Surgical strikes and more)


More than a year after the government signed the deal to buy 36 Rafale combat jets in September 2016, the contract is back in the news again, thanks to the allegations by the Opposition Congress that the government did not follow rules and procedures and that it overpaid for the fighters. The allegations have been denied by the government and rightly so. To begin with the previous UPA government had not finalised the price of the contract. So comparison of cost is incorrect. But there is more. the Mod under then Defence Minister AK Antony had convoluted the process to an extent where it had become impossible to go through with the deal in its original format. I have detailed the decade-long journey of what was once described as 'mother of all deals,' in my book Securing India The Modi way: Pathankot, Surgical Strikes and more. Here are the excerpts, in two parts which sheds light on what exactly happened in the Rafale deal.  

The competition to acquire 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) for the Indian Air Force began in 2007 after the government agreed with the IAF that it needed to replace the aging fleet of MiG aircraft.

Six companies across the world were issued the tender papers. They were: EADS from Germany, manufacturers of the Eurofighter Typhoon; Lockheed Martin (who make the F-16s) and Boeing ((F-18 aircraft) from the USA, Sweden’s SAAB (makers of Gripen); Dassualt Aviation from France (the Rafale manufacturers) and Russia’s Rosoboron Export (MiG-35).

India was looking for 18 aircraft to be bought off the shelf and 108 were to be manufactured in India (with a local partner, in this case, it was supposed to be the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd). Required maintenance, repair and overhaul facilities were to be set up. The MMRCA contract was variously described as ‘mother of all deals,’ ‘most complex defence contract,’ etc in the media reports. And it indeed was.

According to official documents that I have had a chance to read, the MoD had in 2011, bench marked the Total Cost of Acquisition at Rs 163,403 crores. This, it must be pointed out, was different from the total cost of deliverables in the  126 MMRCA contract, which was bench marked by the MoD at Rs 69,456 crores, excluding the offset loading cost, estimated to be anywhere between Rs 2530 crores to Rs 5060 crores.

All this came after the six companies submitted their techno-commercial bids in April 2008, followed by nearly 11 months of field evaluation trial (FET) held in the heat of Rajasthan desert during peak summer months and extreme cold conditions in the high altitude zone of Ladakh. The trials were completed in May 2010. The evaluation committee of the IAF shortlisted two aircraft—the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Rafale aircraft fielded by the Dassault Aviation (DA)—and forwarded the recommendation to Defence Minister AK Antony. Antony took almost a year to accept the recommendation. It was already 2011. After prolonged internal discussions in two sub-committees (the Technical Oversight Committee-TOC, the Technical Offset Evaluation Committee-TOEC), a Contract Negotiations Committee (CNC) was formed in April 2011. By September that year, the CNC had arrived at the benchmarking cost after applying escalation rates by averaging simple year-on-year escalation.

But it was not before July 2012, that the CNC activated four Sub-Committees, the 'Maintenance', `Offset', and `ToT and `Contract' Sub-Committees.

For the next two years, negotiations on Transfer of Technology, Offset and Maintenance went on apace. However, certain aspects related to License Manufacture of 108 aircraft in India with HAL as the lead production agency could not be finalized. Major differences occurred on the aspect of Man Hours that would be required to produce the aircraft from kits in India and who would take the responsibility for entire lot of 126 aircraft. While DA maintained that 31 Million Man Hours that it has proposed should be sufficient to produce 108 Rafale aircraft in India, HAL was asking for mark up of this Man Hours by 2.7 times.

This point became the bone of contention between the government and the French manufacturer.

Moreover, in the understanding of the MoD, the company that had emerged as the winner in the bid—Dassault Aviation—would have to sign a single contract with the Indian government. The French Company would then need to have back to back contract(s) with HAL and other Indian Production Agencies. Dassault Aviation would also be responsible for the delivery of the complete 126 aircraft to IAF and the single point responsibility for this contract rested with Dassault Aviation because the RFP was issued to them. At that stage, the representatives of Dassault Aviation agreed do their best to meet all requirements of the project as envisaged in the RFP.

However, Dassault Aviation did not fulfil the commitment given in the first meeting and an impasse ensued on the responsibility of delivery of 108 aircraft to be manufactured in India. Another hurdle came up on the point of work share of HAL. Dassault Aviation was asked to submit a 'Responsibility Matrix', clearly defining the role and responsibility of Dassault Aviation and HAL. The `Responsibility Matrix' was to facilitate a back to back contract of Dassault Aviation with HAL.  The CNC was however not able to move the negotiations forward since the interpretation of two fundamental aspects of the case by the French Company was not in line with the terms of the original terms in the tender.

The first aspect related to treating Dassault Aviation as the 'Seller' of 126 aircraft, including 108 to be manufactured in India and the corresponding contractual obligations and liabilities. The second point was about the ‘man hours for the aircraft to be manufactured in India. The UPA government, under the overly cautious AK Antony instead of imposing a deadline for the French manufacturer to comply with the terms of the RFP, dragged its feet and allowed Dassault Aviation to get away with obfuscation. Moreover, in an unusual move, Antony instructed MoD officials to bring the file back to him after concluding the CNC to re-examine the integrity of the process before proceeding to finalise the contract, creating confusion and doubt in the minds of the officials who were negotiating with the manufacturer.

Even as talks got deadlocked, the government changed in Delhi.

(Continued in Part II)

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Removing the cobwebs: How Modi altered the national security approach

By personally authorising a surgical strike, and then announcing it to the world, Prime Minister Modi was truly living up to his growing reputation as a ‘risk taker’.

Surgical strikes inside PoK were indeed a massive political and diplomatic gamble.

A number of things could have gone wrong.The advancing parties could have been attacked, or ambushed, leaving Indian soldiers injured or killed in the area occupied by Pakistan. If the information regarding the targeted areas and routes had been found to be inaccurate, the mission could have failed to achieve its objectives. Most importantly, the success of the operation depended upon precise intelligence about the terrorist camps, their presence in those camps, and safe routes to access them which would be free from landmines.The precision and accuracy of intelligence therefore played a vital role.

It is imperative to note that if the trans-LoC raids had failed, the Indian PM would have lost face, as well as huge political capital. A setback in the raids would have further constricted India’s room to manoeuvre its policy against Pakistan, and politically, Modi would have been hobbled in domestic affairs. However, he went for the jugular, precisely because no one expected him to. Of course, the Prime Minister could take the risk because he had built a national security team led by Doval that had the requisite operational experience, and the ability to be meticulous in preparation of a plan and execution, based on precise real-time intelligence. The troops too were highly motivated and well trained. Over and above everything else, Modi had confidence in the ability of the forces to carry out the mission.
The Prime Minister’s critics have variously described this and some of his other unconventional decisions since coming to power as rash, thoughtless, gimmicky, and even dangerous.

Modi has nevertheless charted his own course.

The surgical strikes was just one such example. In the past 40 months, Modi has shown the ability to stay ahead of the curve and catch almost everyone off guard on many occasions.


Indeed that was the case as is evident from the bold, unconventional and swift moves in diplomacy, security, and administration, which has marked the Prime Minister’s tenure so far, often leaving his opponents stunned and supporters asking for more. One common thread across the spectrum in his approach has been the realisation that it has to be ‘India First’. Every decision that is taken and implemented is aimed at making India safe, stable, and prosperous.

Modi’s bold move to invite heads of states in the neighbourhood for his own swearing in was not a one-off ‘out of the box’ decision.

But what of Modi’s security policies? What is his approach?

At one level, because of his record as a no-nonsense administrator and his nationalistic views, it was a given that Modi would adopt a more robust security policy with respect to both Pakistan and China. Breaking years of status quo and hesitation have not been easy. Inevitably, there have been setbacks—in Kashmir and the Maoist-dominated areas—but in each case, the national security apparatus under Modi’s premiership has bounced back and reconfigured itself.

Ambassador Satish Chandra,seasoned diplomat and former deputy national security adviser, sums it up succinctly: ‘Modi is not looking at the past as a inhibiting factor.The Prime Minister will do what he thinks is right. He is not inhibited by lack of precedence. Every Prime Minister gets bogged down by countervailing forces within the well- established system. But Modi has been able to break out of the iron clad framework because he is a complete outsider. He is not part of the Delhi Durbar and can therefore think out of the box on most vital issues like foreign policy and national security.’

The results may not be immediately apparent, but many far- reaching changes, ushered in over the past three years, will strengthen national security, as the subsequent chapters will argue.

However, according to NSA Doval, it is dif cult to comprehend Modi’s security policies without understanding his vision for the nation. Groomed and nurtured ideologically in a strong nationalist mode, he has both a civilisational awareness and a long-term strategic vision of India’s security. He believes that a strong economy, transformed human capital of India, technological excellence, and powerful national consciousness of the Indian people are the guarantors of Indian security. His emphasis on human resource  development,indigenisation of defence production, and emphasis on technology in defence, are all aimed at making India strong and secure. A careful analysis of all his speeches and utterances make it clear that he considers the will of the nation as the main ingredient of its Comprehensive National Power (CNP). He wants the Indian people to be proud of their past, resolute in their present, and imbued with high hopes for the future. Most Indians credit him for raising the national consciousness to a much higher level.

With those objectives in mind, the Prime Minister wanted to build an effective and efficient team around him.The team members also needed to share his vision and jointly resolve to secure India, and to make it powerful, potent, and prosperous. Modi therefore, needed to have a team leader with experience, knowledge, integrity, and high credibility in the security domain.

He found that man in Ajit Doval, the old security czar, a legend in the highly competitive and covert world of intelligence, but more importantly someone, who like Modi, was uninhibited by personal biases and did not harbour a private agenda,except making India strong and secure. Doval had served for long years in the Intelligence Bureau and dealt with crucial matters of national security before retiring in 2005 as Director of the IB.

Indeed Doval’s appointment as National Security Adviser (NSA) was one of the  first official decisions that Modi took after assuming office on 26 May 2014.

Modi and Doval had a nodding acquaintance when Doval was in service, but they came to know each other better after 2005 when the NSA retired as head of the Intelligence Bureau. By that time, Modi was a well-established and undisputed leader in Gujarat. Gradually, Doval, who founded the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF), a think-tank on strategic affairs after retirement, developed a great deal of admiration and saw in Modi a leader who could transform India. His critics allege that Doval used VIF for promoting BJP’s electoral prospects by lending legitimacy and garnering support for the RSS version of Indian nationalism. No one was however, able to substantiate the charge. Modi roped him in to establish the Raksha Shakti University in Gujarat. A one of its kind training institution, 
the Raksha Shakti University has a vision to ‘impart customised education to the youth of the country in all vital aspects of internal security to ensure that specialised and trained personnel are available for employment in various security agencies like police forces, defence, private security. It now attracts many talented young men and women interested in ‘understanding the world of security.’

After Doval took over as India’s  fifth National Security Adviser, he and the Prime Minister set about removing the cobwebs in the minds of security sector practitioners and the lethargy that had crept into the system.

In Doval, the Prime Minister had the advantage of a person who not only knew the inner workings of the security apparatus in the country, but also someone who commanded great respect amongst peers and juniors. The NSA’s operational exploits are well-known and his high decorations include the Kirti Chakra, one of the highest military gallantry awards. Indeed, his achievements during active years in service accords him an unparalleled standing among the younger generation of officers.

Over the past three years, the Modi-Doval combine has put together a core team of security professionals across the board and created a seamless system where bickering and infighting of yore has been eliminated. Speaking to this author over three longish sessions— Doval rarely comes on record, both due to the sensitivity of his job and also because of years of being in the habit of operating in the shadows- -the NSA remarked, ‘For Prime Minister Modi, the only criterion is national interest when it comes to formulating national security policies, or taking difficult decisions. He is completely oblivious to political consequences when it comes to taking the right decisions on national security.This attribute gives the PM rare clarity of thought. He is never in doubt over a decision once it is taken. Most strikingly, he is an innovative genius. I have yet to come across an instance when he does not add a new dimension, or offer an innovative suggestion to any issue brought before him.’

Doval reveals that Modi’s National Security approach is ‘without fetters’. ‘The advantage of such a doctrine is that he has no other focus except his deeply embedded patriotism and the awareness that for India to become a great power, a secure environment—both internal and external—is an absolute must,’ the NSA remarked. More importantly, Doval says the Prime Minister looks at national security from a long-term perspective and ‘does not get rattled with episodic ups and downs’, referring to occasional setbacks in the fight against the Maoists and in J&K. His larger strategic objective is to make India secure and stable, said Doval.

As a result of this clarity, as Doval observes, in the last three years, India has managed to enhance its intelligence capabilities, strengthen its border management, and silently but resolutely enhance defence preparedness.‘There are very few people talking about any intelligence failure these days,’ he points out.‘There has been enhancement in our real time response capability, speed and surprise in our operations, and a shift from improved coordination to inter-agency synergy,’ he adds. According to the NSA, the Prime Minister’s understanding of cyber security, maritime security, space research, and other such complex matters ‘continues to surprise us all’.

Doval, who perhaps meets the Prime Minister more than anyone else, reveals, ‘His comprehension and attention span is unbelievably high. His approach is essentially of a problem solver; he comes out with solutions that will often surprise you.’The NSA also reveals that the Modi approach to national security is also highly ‘value based’. He strongly believes that as a responsible nation, with a high potential and promising future, we should not do or support anything that is not in consonance with India’s core values, or that might be internationally unacceptable. The nation’s commitment to democracy and rule of law must always be upheld. He wants ‘India’s security apparatus to be professional, seamlessly coordinated, well-equipped, and innovative.’ Doval too believes in capability building, anticipating threats and leading from the front.As he observed,‘in security,it does matter what happens to you, but what matters more is how you respond.’ There’s no doubt that having spent long years of his life conducting operations on ground, Doval has developed a unique tactical and strategic sense. Elaborating further, he told me, ‘Strategy without tactics is noise before the defeat, and tactics without strategy is the shortest route to committing suicide. Both are equally important and intertwined. For example, neutralising a terrorist commander is tactical, but degrading the capacity of a terrorist outfit is strategic.’

He also does not agree that a terrorist, even in a suicide mode, can strike any time.‘I believe terrorist incidents take place when three curves meet: the curve of intention, the curve of capability, and the curve of opportunity. We change their intentions and capabilities through strategic and tactical means, while denial of opportunity is mainly tactical, degrading the capacity of a terror group by proactive or preventive means is strategic. An effective counter-terrorist policy should therefore aim to ensure that the triangle is never formed and if it does, the area is minimised,’ he stated.

(Excerpted from Securing India The Modi way: Pathankot, Surgical Strikes and more)

Available on and

Sunday, September 24, 2017

India needs to punch according to its own weight

Swarajya magazine interviewed me on eve of the publication of my book Securing India The Modi Way: Pathankot, Surgical strikes and more, to be released on 29 September. Here are some excerpts

Rishabh (Swarajya magazine): So, my first question to you is that your book is rather curiously titled ‘Securing India the Modi Way’, what the title implies to me is that there has been a clear departure from the management of India’s security apparatus, pre- and post Modi, how radical has this departure been?
Nitin Gokhale (NG): Well, yes, certainly your assessment is right that the title implies that there has been a major change in the way the national security is handled by the Modi Govt. and the difference is: In many ways it is more robust, more muscular, it is predicated on the fact that India being the rising power needs to punch according to its weight. There are instances that have happened in the last three, three and half years now, in forty months which bear testimony to what the Modi government has done as far as the national security is concerned. Therefore the title. The book includes not just various operations but the fundamental changes that have been brought in to management of national security.

Rishabh: Okay, could you give any examples of certain incidents that have struck your eye?
NG: Yes, in fact they all feature--at least two or three of those examples--in the book but the prominent one, the biggest one is India’s approach towards China and I’ve called that chapter ‘Standing up to China’, because if you look at some of the incidents that have happened at the border, be it in Chumar in 2014, when President Xi Jinping was in fact in India and the way India handled the stand-off at the border, then at Dolam, which is popularly being called as Doklam, which is the Chinese name, the Dolam plateau crisis in recent months, in which the underlying theory or the underlying principle in handling that crisis was that India will be resolute on the border but reasonable in diplomacy. Now that is something which is a major departure, which I think the world over people have come to recognize as far as dealing with China is concerned that you’re looking at Chinese which is as a nation, China as a military power, as an economic power is much bigger than India but Modi as Prime Minister and his security team led by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval have decided that you can’t let China bully India, you have to stand firm at various places and at the same time do not treat China as the enemy. It is a challenger, it is an adversary but India is not exactly pining for a fight, is what India’s response has been as far as China is concerned and that to me is a major departure from past.

Rishabh: You refer to Mr. Modi’s robustness in terms of the security apparatus. Last year saw the much touted cross border strikes which were heralded as the great personal triumph of the PM, was this option open to previous governments too?
NG: Oh well yes, if you speak to military commanders which I often do, these options were always on the table, that the military, the army especially has always looked at it as one of the options and you speak to former chiefs or former army commanders in Northern Command which looks after the Pakistan border, they’ll tell you that there were some shallow raids, some cross-border raids in the past. Nobody is denying that. The difference between those raids and what happened on 29th September 2016 is the fact that it was the first time such a raid was owned by the PM, it was authorized personally by the PM in consultation with his security team which included the Defence Minister, the National Security Advisor and the Army Chief and which was then not only publicly announced but authorized as I said by the PM but owned. So, there was big gamble, both political and military gamble with this because if something had gone wrong in the raid, India would’ve been shamed. It is this gamble that previous PMs did not want to take. Their approach was: if you want to raid, do a cross-border raid in Pakistan or POK, go ahead, but don’t tell us.

Rishabh: Okay, so, speaking of this personal political gamble what reaction would PM Modi would’ve expected from the world and Pakistan after the strike, what were the different types of reactions do you recon would’ve played-out in his head?
NG: Well, you know I detail that in the book. India factored in a kind of escalation even if it seemed remote at that time, they had factored in, India’s security managers had factored in a likely escalation or retaliation from Pakistan and had sort of prepared for any eventuality including a wider conflict but that didn’t happen and Pakistan went completely quiet and in a denial mode was because it was stunned in to silence because they did not expect, the Pakistan establishment and the Pakistanis Army did not expect this to happen. Going by the reactions and the radio chatter and the kind of movements that happened in the PoK, one can very firmly surmise that tactical raids and they were tactical raids--they were seven points in which the raids took place but across the wide frontier of about 250 KM from Uri north of Pir Panjal to Naushera, South of Pir Panjal-- simultaneous raids actually had a strategic impact.

Rishabh: Mr Doval has been known as the point person for Mr. Modi on security aspects, what has been your assessment of him in the role of NSA? His role in Pathankot for instance.
NG: Pathankot forms a major chapter in my book, in which I bust many myths that were built, many misconceptions that were built around that attack and the role or no role that Ajit Doval as the NSA had played in preventing the attack. If you go through what I’ve written I have said that it was because of a proactive approach adopted under the leadership of the NSA, that India did not lose any of the vital strategic assets i.e. aircraft, the missiles, the ammunition dump  and neither was any hostage situation allowed to be developed on that big campus which is the Pathankot Airbase which has about 2000 Acres of area and had 10,000 civilians living on that campus., you should compare that kind of an attack in our neighbourhood, in Afghanistan where the US airbase was attacked or in Pakistan twice or in Sri Lanka there were huge damages to aircraft, missiles and the infrastructure. In this case, yes, India did lose seven brave men but those were because of circumstances or lack of information on ground at that point in time but there was only one combat fatality really in chasing the terrorists. So, it was proactive intelligence wise and proactive combat wise. Because of this I think Pathankot is a bigger success, contrary to what people believe or say.

Rishabh: Could you briefly outline how the overall decision making within the security establishment works, like what are our strong points or the chinks in our armour?
NG: See, there’s nothing as good which can’t bettered in any circumstances but what has happened in last three, three and half years is that there’s a lot of proactive measures, there’s a lot of coordination and synergy between different agencies. Gone is the bickering of the old where there were turf battles between different agencies, intelligence as well as the security forces that’s because the NSA is an experienced and a respected man and the PM gives a very clear directive in what needs to be done and once he takes a decision he does not waiver no matter what the political consequences, when it comes to securing India’s national interest. That is what underlines his national security policy. It is India first and not anything else, so therefore, that is the big change, there’s no compromise on the core interests of India. However I think we need urgent police reforms in India. The law enforcers need to be better equipped and better trained and the military needs to overcome its critical shortages which have historically been there for past 20 years or so. I’m not expecting them to be made up quickly but they’re moving towards it. So, I think there has been no major terror attacks in any of the states other than J&K and parts of Punjab bordering Pakistan in the past 40 months in prevailing circumstances the world over, I think is a major achievement.

Rishabh: What are views on how government manages the military procurement in the country, the strategic partnership model and a lot of other ideas being meted out, are these helping yet in your opinion?
NG: Well, it’s a start and as I’ve said many fundamental policy changes have taken place in defence procurement, in policy but no policy is perfect and the Strategic Partnership Model I think needs a bit of tweaking, it needs further discussion between all the stake holders but the Defence Procurement Policy 2016 which was unveiled during the Defence Expo is a path braking initiative because it gives primacy to IDDM product, the indigenously designed developed and manufactured product in defence, so, that gives top most preference to Indian products in the military segments. That said, India has a long way to go to become self sufficient and self reliant, self reliant in defence but it’s a start and of course the Modi Govt needs to do more than what they’ve done or what they’ve managed to do so far but I’m hopeful, given that the focus is on the national security in a big way, those wrinkles will be ironed out very soon.

Rishabh: You’re someone who’s deeply interested in the north-east, the Myanmar border raid on the NSCN terrorists was an Indian cross-border operation, was it the first time that such an operation had taken place?
NG: Well again as I said, owning-up of the operation was the first time, certainly to my mind. I’ve lived in and reported from the north-east for 23 years between 1983 and 2006. In my mind there have been raids on as I said the headquarters of militant groups or camps of militant groups, all that has happened in the past. There was one operation that comes to mind, Operation Golden Bird, which happened in 1995, where the Indian and the Myanmarese army acted in concert to prevent huge influx and huge consignment of arms coming into northeast, that was there but in this case, it was an immediate raid that took place and certainly the Indian army Special Forces went into Myanmar and decimated a big camp of all the North-East militants living together, a large camp and therefore I think that was the first. And again let me tell you that it was because of the success of the Myanmarese operation that the army and the security establishment at the highest level thought of doing similar cross border raids across the LoC in the PoK, so in a way it can be said that it was a start of the proactive policy in terms of tackling militants and terrorists on both western and eastern fronts.

Rishabh: Do you envision more such operations taking place across the border?
NG: Well, let me say this or paraphrase Lt Gen DS Hooda, who has been all over the media for past 2-3 days, “Can India do a similar raid again? Yes it can, because it broke the glass ceiling” as he says in the interviews, it actually unshackled the fetters that were in the minds of the Indian military planners because they were never given the political clearance to do this. Because it was seen escalatory, a raid across the LOC in PoK. You ask me if they can be repeated, yes, they can be but no two raids of special forces are similar. Therefore, there are other options now that India can exercise when it needed but what it has done is that it has created an uncertainty in the minds of the Pakistani military establishment where they no know how India will react. Earlier, the reaction or retaliation used to be very predictable.

Rishabh: Going back to the north-east, what has been your estimation of PM Modi handling of the Naga talks and the other insurgencies in the north-east?
NG: Well, the insurgencies have I won’t say petered out or come under manageable control but about the Naga talks I’m slightly disappointed in the sense that it’s been more than two years now that the framework accord were signed but there has been no final conclusion to the accord. But I’m not surprised because the history of Naga Insurgency in India, remember it’s the oldest insurgency at least in Asia started in 1956 and it has a very chequered history of failed accords, hopes and optimism rising. Remember it has been almost 20 years when the ceasefire was ordered with the NSCN (IM) in August 1997. I would think that the government is working towards a solution, where, when will it come, whether it’ll come in this tenure of the government, I’m not sure but it’ll come, if you ask me what is my desire or what is my wish, it should come very soon.

Rishabh: That was it for us, Nitin. Thank you for talking to us.     

Monday, September 11, 2017

The story behind making of a new book

Finally the book is ready to print!
Sometime in early 2017, I was on my annual visit to one of the military training establishments to deliver a talk. Over tea, after the usual lively interactive session, a young, smartly turned out officer popped a question that stumped me for a moment. He asked, "Why do the media always doubt our military's ability? Why can't it believe the forces when they say Indian soldiers went across the LoC to carry out surgical strikes?"  My counter to him was, “Don't generalise.”  “There are many (including me in my earlier avatar as a media practitioner) who report factually but in absence of official accounts of what actually happened in the raids that took place in 2015 and 2016, it is difficult for the media too, to give the audience the full picture,” I pointed out to him.

While the officer did not go away entirely convinced the exchange with him set me thinking. On the return flight to Delhi, I tried to recall what I exactly knew about many of the recent actions taken by the military and other security forces; or for that matter how decision-making evolves at say, the Prime Minister’s level or in the top echelons of the government. As I scribbled some points, realisation dawned: I may have known enough to write a quick news story or a longer analysis, but clearly, the details have always been elusive in respect of crucial events in the realm of national security.

How easy or hard it would be then to attempt a book on the insider accounts of some the recent decisions taken by the Indian government, I asked myself. As I began looking for unknown details—and more importantly authentic accounts--one realised that it was going to be an uphill task getting genuine information for all the events that I had in mind. By mid-February however, the idea to write a book had been firmly embedded in my mind. Starting bottom up, some of the preliminary information was gathered; old notes were reviewed; some documentaries were revisited but I was still not able to put a finger on the time period that I wanted to concentrate on.

So choosing a time period was the first step. As the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government was about to complete three years in May 2017, a spate of books were hitting the stores focusing on Prime Minister Modi and the BJP which appeared unstoppable in winning elections.

None of them however looked in-depth at one domain I am familiar with: Security and strategic affairs.  That is the time the central idea of this book—unveiling the three years of Modi government’s security policies--finally crystallised in my mind. I was aware of some of the path breaking policy initiatives the defence ministry and the bold decisions taken by the Prime Minister but the details were missing. We didn’t know for instance what led to the decision to authorise surgical strikes both in Myanmar and in PoK? Or what drives India’s new found resolve in tackling China? I was curious to know how the Prime Minister arrives at a particularly tough decision? What drives his national security policies? Why does he lay stress on personal equations with world leaders? 

All these question needed clear answers.

The first task therefore was to make a list of possible events to concentrate on and then go looking for information about them. The content and the time period were set. Now came the hard part. Extracting information in the domain that I work in is as it is not easy; to get people to talk about what normally remains secret was doubly difficult. That’s when old associations and friendships came in handy. Information started trickling in in bits and pieces; authenticating and fleshing out bare minimum facts was the next step. Slowly, the chapters started taking shape. In most other sectors, people would have gladly spoken about their role and contribution but those in uniform and in the secretive world of intelligence have an in-built resistance in sharing even innocuous information.

Nevertheless, I have tried to put together a book based on several insider accounts and hitherto unknown facts about some of the unprecedented steps taken by the Modi government in the past 40 months. 

This is by no means an analytical document. In fact, it is mostly factual and narrated from the point of view of those involved—and more importantly those whom I could get access to. I had to also keep security of information and protagonists who have shared it with me, in mind. In that respect, I have followed what my guru MV Kamath told me ages ago: ‘It is more important what you don’t write than what you write.’ But as readers you would understand why this is so.

Some would view this book as an incomplete account. It’s a start nevertheless. 

Till then, read the book for what it is: a journalistic record of some of the bold and unconventional decisions taken by the Modi government since 2014.
There is no denying the fact that this book has gained immensely by the trust reposed in me by people in very sensitive appointments. Many who spoke to me cannot be named because they continue to serve in the military and our intelligence agencies. Many details have come from people at the apex of decision-making structure in this country. Some details have been revealed for the first time ever. I am therefore hoping, many readers would be interested in reading this book.

It is set to be launched on 29 September in Delhi. The day is significant: It is the first anniversary of the surgical strikes by Indian Special Forces inside Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). 

It will be available in stores and online just before that day. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Assam Regiment and Brig. T. Sailo

Last month, the Salute magazine published a special issue on the Assam Regiment, one of Indian Army's well-know infantry units. I wrote a small tribute to one its illustrious officers, Brig. T. Sailo, who also later became the Chief Minister of Mizoram. Here's the account of my first encounter with him more than 33 years ago.

It was January 1984. Barely, seven months into the profession of journalism, my Editor at The Sentinel, the Guwahati-based newspaper, decided to send me to Mizoram. The idea was to do a comprehensive coverage on the Union Territory (Mizoram was to become a state three years later) and the state of insurgency there.

Although it was a big break for me at that age (I was not even 22), the assignment was not going to be easy. First there was the physical journey.

Travelling to Aizawl from Guwahati meant taking a ‘night super’ bus, a 17-18 hour journey via Meghalaya and southern Assam’s Barak Valley. 

For another, Mizoram was still in the grip of insurgency launched by the Mizo National Army, the armed outfit of the Mizo National Front (MNF). The rebels (or militants or insurgents as they were described in popular lexicon but never terrorists) had been fighting the mighty Indian state since February 1966. So there was always the fear in the minds of the ‘outsider’ about being targted in Mizoram.

Excited and apprehensive at the same time, I prepared to make my first ‘outstation’ trip on assignment. The mandatory Inner-Line permit was obtained (all non-Mizos entering the state still need the permit), the bus ticket was bought, the bag was packed with woollens since Aizawl I was told by senior is in the mountains and therefore much colder than Guwahati which is on the banks of the Brahmaputra.

Luckily, I had some support in Aizawl even before I arrived there. The newspaper owner’s brother-in-law was posted there in the State Bank of India as the Branch Manager. I was in fact supposed to stay with him.

So one fine morning, after the grueling 18 hour journey, I arrived at Aizawl. It was misty and cold. I went to SBI officer’s house, slept immediately. After three-four hours of sleep and early lunch, I went to the Chief Minister’s office.

Before going there, all that I knew was that a retired Brigadier named T. Sailo was the Chief Minister of Mizoram. At the office I was met by a pleasant, extremely courteous officer named LR Sailo. He was the Chief Minister’s PRO. Although he has never told me what his memories of our first meeting are, one look at me, and LR (we have been friends since that first meeting 31 years ago) would surely have thought ‘is this skinny little boy really a journalist?’ But he kept a straight face and took me to Brig. Sailo.

After the formal introduction, I handed over some copies of The Sentinel to the Chief Minister and in a typical soldierly bluntness he asked me: “What do you know about Mizoram? About its history, its people?”
Sheepishly, but with all honesty at my command, I blurted out, “not much sir!” Brig. Sailo glared at LR conveying his annoyance in just one look and told him something in Mizo before turning to me and saying: “Son, let me arrange for you to read some history and some details about us and our state. Spend a couple of days here and then come and meet me again.”

I was dismissed with a flourish. My heart sank. What will I tell my bosses back in Guwahati? Does this mean, I am going to fail in my first-ever outstation assignment? All kinds of negative thoughts raced through my mind. But LR was helpfulness personified. He arranged for several books, including one called the Dagger Brigade by Nirmal Nibedon, the first journalist to get access to the MNF/MNA leadership and bring to life the story of Mizo insurgency.

For the next 48 hours, I read feverishly, trying to absorb as much as possible. KN Hazarika, my newspaper owner’s brother-in-law, who had also spent time in Mizoram, was a great help too.

So, after 48 hours of nearly non-stop reading books on Mizoram, I went to see Brig. Sailo again. Uncertain about his reaction, I was tentative initially but the old man put me at ease and answered all my seemingly silly questions. I met several other people in order understand the state of affairs in Mizoram that time and made the long journey back home to Guwahati. A week later, I had a full-page cover story in the Sunday edition on The Sentinel and my first ever interview with a Chief Minister was published too.

In three decades since, numerous interviews have been done, some I am proud of, some I am not happy with but no matter how many interviews I do in the future, I will always remember the first one fondly. And therefore will never ever forget Brig. T. Sailo. He taught me the importance of background check, domain awareness and triggered a habit of advance reading about a place or a personality that I am visiting or interviewing.

​Later, I met him a couple of times when he was not Chief Minister. In th​ose meetings, I ventured away from politics and asked the Brigadier about his Army life. In his slow, deliberate style, he recounted how as a young 20-year old man he was commissioned into the Assam Regiment in 1942 in the middle of World War II. "I was the first Mizo to become a commissioned officer. The Army took me to different places including overseas and made me what I am," he reminisced.

The apogee of  
​his military career was to command the 190 'Korea' Brigade of the Indian Army. Now headquartered at Tawang along the China border, the 190 Brigade is called Korea Brigade because it was deployed in Indo-China in the 1950s. ​Brig Sailo was proud to have been part of the Indian Army and particularly the Assam Regiment. 

​As I started gaining better insight into the Army and learning about its structure, ethos and traditions, it was not difficult to see why ​the Brigadier was so fiercely possessive about the Assam Regiment, a unique experiment
​ in integration of disparate tribes in the north-east. There was no common language that these boys, from different tribes spread over the region, could speak or understand so they have, over the years evolved a lingo of their own: a mix of multiple languages, a language that only they can understand! More than the language however, it is remarkable that the Assam regiment has  emerged as one of Indian Army's finest regiments, thanks to early work by its leadership, both British and Indian officers.

Brig Sailo passed away in 2015 but I will always remember him as someone who was kind to me in early days as a journalist.

I haven’t had the chance to visit Mizoram for almost a decade now but the people, the state and friends one has made there over the years, continue to be close to my heart.

All thanks to a man called Brig. T. Sailo.

(The writer lived and reported from the north-east between 1983 and 2006)