Reacting to the induction of the first batch of five Rafale fighter jets into the Indian Air Force at Ambala Air Base on Thursday amid tensions with China over incursions in eastern Ladakh, Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria said this could not have happened at a more opportune time, while defence minister Rajnath Singh sent a strong message to Beijing.
Singh, who was at the induction ceremony along with Bhadauria, said national security is a major priority for India and it is determined to protect its territory.
The Union defence minister said the induction of Rafale jets into the IAF is crucial considering the kind of atmosphere being created along India's border. "It is a strong message for the entire world, especially those eyeing India's sovereignty," Singh said in an address at a ceremony marking the formal induction of the Rafale fleet.
The defence minister also said that India's responsibility is not limited to its territorial boundary and that it is committed to peace and security in the Indo-Pacific and Indian Ocean, the two regions where China has been increasing its military assertiveness.
"This kind of induction is very important for the kind of atmosphere that has been created on our borders in recent times," the defence minister said in a clear reference to the escalating tensions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in eastern Ladakh.
The defence minister also complimented the IAF for its "swift action" near the LAC during a "recent unfortunate incident". He, however, did not elaborate.
"The speed at which IAF deployed assets on forward bases creates confidence," he said. "While prevailing situation on our border caught our attention, we should not ignore threat of terrorism," he added.
Singh, later taking to Twitter, also urged France to invest in the Indian defence sector, reminded the public about the threat of cross-border terror and praised the IAF's role in disaster relief efforts.
A few BJP ministers also took to Twitter to congratulate Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the historic day.
Women and Child Welfare minister Smriti Irani, congratulating the IAF, called it a "defining day" for India:
Congratulations to @IAF_MCC on formal induction of Rafale aircrafts in 17 Squadron 'Golden Arrows' today. #RafaleInduction is a defining moment for India; it will immensely aid our Air Force in Touching the Sky with Glory.
¤¨¤¤ ¤¸¥¤ª¥¤¶¤ ¤¦¥¤ª¥¤¤¤®¥ 🙏
" Smriti Z Irani (@smritiirani) September 10, 2020
Minister of State for Road Transport and Highways and Ghaziabad MP General (retired) VK Singh tweeted:
Minister of Railways Piyush Goyal called it an "important step" towards strengthening India's air power and thanked Modi and Rajnath:
This is an important step towards strengthening India's air power.
Jai Hind 🇮🇳 https://t.co/K1zFAZnAp5
" Piyush Goyal (@PiyushGoyal) September 10, 2020
Union Minister of State for Home G Kishan Reddy also thanked the prime minister for bolstering the IAF and "reinforcing our skies":
First batch of #Rafale have been inducted into @IAF_MCC after Sarva Dharma Puja in the presence of Hon RM @RajnathSingh & Hon Minister of the Armed Forces of France, Mrs. Florence Parly. Thank you Hon PM @narendramodi, for bolstering IAF & reinforcing our skies.#RafaleInductionpic.twitter.com/tmgogB122M
" G Kishan Reddy (@kishanreddybjp) September 10, 2020
Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, calling the induction a moment of immense pride and joy, also commended the prime minister and the defence minister:
¤¤¾¤°¤¤ ¤®¤¾¤¤¤¾ ¤¥ ¤¤¯!
" Shivraj Singh Chouhan (@ChouhanShivraj) September 10, 2020
Rajnath's stern message to the neighbouring country came hours ahead of an expected meeting between External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the margins of a Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) conclave in Moscow.
The much anticipated talks are taking place against the backdrop of a massive spike in tension in eastern Ladakh triggered by fresh face-offs between the two armies along the LAC.
The Indian Army on Tuesday said Chinese troops attempted to close in on an Indian position near the southern bank of Pangong lake on the evening of 7 September and fired shots in the air.
The army said this in a statement after the PLA late on Monday night alleged that Indian troops crossed the LAC and "outrageously fired" warning shots near the Pangong lake.
A meeting between Rajnath and his Chinese counterpart General Wei Fenghe on the margins of another SCO meet in Moscow last Friday apparently did not yield any tangible outcome.
BJP, Congress back and forth
On 23 August, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi criticised the Central Government over the Rafale fighter aircraft deal, prompting Union Minister Piyush Goyal to hit back saying he is welcome to fight the 2024 General Elections to the Lok Sabha on the issue.
In a tweet, Rahul quoted a source-based news report which claimed that the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) has submitted its performance audit on defence offset contracts to the government with no mention of any offset deals related to the purchase of Rafale aircraft.
"Money was stolen from the Indian exchequer in Rafale," Rahul alleged in his tweet without elaborating.
In his Twitter post, the former Congress president also quoted Mahatma Gandhi's words: "Truth is one, paths are many".
In a sharp retort, Goyal, who is the Union Railway Minister and a senior BJP leader, said:
"Many of Rahul Gandhi's Congress colleagues confide in private that Rahul's obsession with Rafale to wash off his father's sins is damaging the party. But if someone is wanting to self-destruct, who are we to complain? We invite him to fight the 2024 elections on Rafale," Goyal tweeted.
The NDA government had inked a Rs 59,000-crore deal in 2016 to procure 36 Rafale jets from French aerospace major Dassault Aviation after a nearly seven-year exercise to procure 126 Rafale jets for the Indian Air Force did not fructify during the UPA regime.
The Congress had alleged irregularities in the Rafale deal, claiming that the government was procuring each aircraft at a cost higher than what was finalised by the UPA government during negotiations for the 126 jets.
The government and aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation strongly refuted these allegations. In a verdict in 2018, the Supreme Court had given clean chit to the government on the deal.
The political controversy relating to the deal peaked in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls and during the campaign Gandhi had launched a scathing attack on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The Congress had lost the polls with the BJP getting a massive mandate.
All about Rafale
Ten Rafale jets have been delivered to India so far and five of them stayed back in France for imparting training to IAF pilots. The delivery of all 36 aircraft is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2021.
A second batch of four to five Rafale jets are likely to arrive in India by November.
The Rafale jets are India's first major acquisition of fighter planes in 23 years after the Sukhoi jets were imported from Russia.
The Rafale jets are capable of carrying a range of potent weapons. European missile maker MBDA's Meteor beyond visual range air-to-air missile and Scalp cruise missile will be the mainstay of the weapons package of the Rafale jets.
Meteor is a next generation beyond visual range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) designed to revolutionise air-to-air combat. The weapon has been developed by MBDA to combat common threats facing the UK, Germany, Italy, France, Spain and Sweden.
Out of 36 Rafale jets, 30 will be fighter jets and six will be trainers. The trainer jets will be twin-seater and they will have almost all the features of the fighter jets.
While the first squadron of the Rafale jets will be stationed at Ambala air base, the second one will be based at the Hasimara base in West Bengal.
The 17 Squadron of the IAF was resurrected on 10 September last year.
The squadron was originally raised at Air Force Station, Ambala on 1 October, 1951.
The 17 Squadron has many firsts to its credit; in 1955 it was equipped with the first jet fighter, the legendary De Havilland Vampire.
With inputs from PTI