First Person | Defence Carnival

A defence trade show’s primary purpose cannot be public entertainment

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

Once upon a time, in the land far removed from today’s India of swish malls and e-shopping, an annual fair, or carnival, used to be the much looked-forward event combining entertainment with shopping for the simple folks who inhabited the Tier-2 and Tier-3 towns of India. The bigger of these were the travelling exhibitions which went from town to town.

These carnivals followed a three-prong economic model: purchasing and transporting different wares from far-flung parts of the country which energised the economies of all the areas en route, including the railways, trucks and so on. At the fair destination, local labour was hired to set up stalls and entertainment activities. The food vendors, both local and from the neighbouring districts would set up their shacks; and finally, the actual sale of goods. It was win-win for everyone involved.

Since the fairs were driven purely by commercial interests, the organisers used to device imaginative ways of attracting footfalls during the weeklong exposition; and also, to keep the interest of the locals alive in the event year after year. Hence, every day’s trading used to end with an evening extravaganza — from magic shows to folk dance, musical and sometimes even poetic soirees. Some of the carnivals were so big and successful that they used to bring in movie actors to perform on the concluding night of the event!

For the residents of the towns which hosted these carnivals, and those from the neighbouring districts, these were calendar events, advertised and marketed in advance. In the pre-economic liberalisation era, a large number of Indians did not have access to fancy stuff, personal or household; and ordinary people rarely travelled to shop. In addition to bringing Indian crafts from all over the country in one place, these exhibitions also sold so-called ‘imported’ stuff smuggled into the country through the porous India-Nepal border.

Then economic liberalisation happened, the world started shrinking into a global village and most small-town fairs were relegated to the dinosaur age. However, as some gurus say, the past never goes away, it finds its way back into the present in a different form; the small-town travelling fairs are back. Only in the present form it has a fancy name — DefExpo.

The biennial show which started in February 1998 in New Delhi (and continued to be held in the national capital till 2014) has emerged as the true successor of the erstwhile carnivals, travelling with the defence ministers to their home states. In 2016, defence minister Manohar Parrikar took it to his state Goa, and current defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman took it to hers, Tamil Nadu.

Inaugurating the last show, defence minister Parrikar had apologised to the visitors wiping streams of sweat for the inconvenience caused. In his speech, he said, “I am sorry we could not provide a closed sitting area for the inauguration because we didn’t have enough time to do that.” Expecting the Show to return to Goa, he promised that the next time things will be better.




Little did he realise that the Show had changed character. From a defence trade show, proudly touted as the biggest land and naval systems exhibition in this part of the world, it has become a people’s show; a multiday extravaganza for the entertainment of the local people.

This was evident in the post-show stock-taking by the MoD which counted the number of civilians who visited the naval ships anchored at the Chennai harbour for the duration of the Show as one of the markers of its success — 26,000, including school children, over two days. Another marker was the congratulatory tweets that people of Tamil Nadu sent to the minister thanking her for bringing the Show to them.

All this is very well. There are many defence shows, especially the Russian ones, where pleasing domestic audience takes precedence over trade, which is why families and children are welcome from Day 1. In fact, in these shows special attention is paid for the entertainment of the children, through different kinds of carousels and candy/ lolly stands.

Indian defence shows, however, were never conceptualised and marketed like these. Even DefExpo, despite its now carnival-like character has clear business and public days. Hence, the determinant for the show’s success should be what it means for the industry, both the global and the domestic. Is it worth their while or do they go back feeling short-changed?

As for the people, why can’t better opportunities be created for them to familiarise themselves with Indian military and its wares. All the three services celebrate their raising days; perhaps, in select cities they could have special displays and demonstrations for civilians. Then people will also learn why a particular date or event is significant.

Even Republic and Independence Days could be celebrated as public events across the country, becoming more than just flag-hoisting exercises in housing societies and schools. Let there be week-long Republic and Independence carnivals in all major cities where people can have fun and also see not just military ware but everything else from small civilian inventions to big futuristic concepts.

But at trade shows, let’s keep the focus where it is due.