Rajnath Singh to take delivery of first Rafale jet: Modi govt nails messaging, optics by picking defence minister for France visit

Sanjay Singh

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh flying to France to oversee handing over of the first Rafale fighter jet on 8 October to the Indian Air Force has special significance.

Initial reports suggested that the fighter jet was to be handed over to India on 19 September, but then top defence ministry sources suggested that it was postponed due to logistical reasons. It seems that the political leadership in the government put some thought to decide on 8 October as the date of handing over of the first of the next generation aircraft.

An elaborate ceremony in France on that day will coincide with two special occasions in India: celebration of Air Force Day and Vijayadashmi on the conclusion of 10-day Dussehra festival.

The Rafale fighter jets are, by far, the most hyped and most lethal acquisition of the Indian Air Force. There couldn't be a better occasion to showcase it than on the force's foundation day.

It's true that it will still take some time before the jets land in India and become part of a fighting squadron. The time taken will be to allow IAF pilots and personnel to learn to handle the Rafale jets.

It is known that Vijayadashmi is traditionally associated with "Shashtra Puja" and Prime Minister Narendra Modi keeps fast during Navratri (Dussehra) and does Shashtra Puja on Vijayadhashmi.

In terms of optics and messaging, the acquisition of the Rafale jet by the Indian defence forces to take on enemy is just perfect. Rajnath, a politician with his ear to the ground, too performs Navratri and Dussehra rituals, but keeps things private.

As per sources, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa was considered as a candidate to receive the first Rafale jet. But around the time Modi visited France, the French defence ministry requested that Rajnath visit France and receive the jet since his counterpart Florence Parly would be handing them over. The Indian establishment agreed immediately.

The Modi government has attached a great deal of prestige on this government to government deal. This would be one of the first occasions, at least in recent times, when India's defence minister travelled abroad to receive a fighter jet or any other defence equipment.

In the past, defence ministers have, almost consciously, kept away from performing such duties, wary that their presence may put them in a tight spot if any allegations of wrongdoing emerge later. However, the Modi government thinks differently.

Earlier this month, the induction of eight US-made Apache AH-64E attack helicopters at the Pathankot airbase hit the headlines. Rafale jets are surely a much bigger and more hyped acquisition.

Rajnath shifting from home to defence ministry in the Modi government has brought in stability in political leadership in this key ministry. Modi government 1.0 saw four defence ministers: Arun Jaitley twice, Manohar Parrikar and Nirmala Sitharaman.

Rajnath was home minister for five years, has been party president multiple times and served as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. He is only minister in Modi government 2.0 who was a Cabinet minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. Ravi Shankar Prasad is another minister in the Modi government who was a minister in Vajpayee government, but then he was then a Minister of State (Independent charge).

Last month, Rajnath made a major announcement indicating a shift in India's "No First Use" nuclear doctrine by saying "Pokhran is the area which witnessed Atalji's firm resolve to make India a nuclear power, and yet, remain firmly committed to the doctrine of 'No First Use'. India has strictly adhered to this doctrine. What happens in future depends on the circumstances." Rajnath made this statement after visiting Pokhran and was accompanied by Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat.

On 8 October, all eyes will be on the Rafale aircraft and Rajnath.

Also See: IAF's 'Golden Arrows' 17 Squadron to be resurrected today, set to be first unit to fly multi-role Rafale jets

Fuselage of six Apache helicopters to be procured for Indian Army will be manufactured in India, says Boeing official

Eight Apache Boeing AH-64E helicopters inducted into IAF: Choppers were part of 2018 deal signed with United States

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