Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab
The Aero-India 2005 at the Yelahanka airbase near Bangalore certainly got to a flying start. As India’s MiGs, Sukhois, Mirages, Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) and Intermediate Jet Trainers (IJT) soared in rapid succession to the crescendo of applause, the chests of officials from Hindustan Aeronautical Ltd (HAL) swelled with collective pride. Their presence at the show site was unmistakable. The HAL banner was flying right across the Yelahanka horizon; their static display hogged the Aerial Display Viewing Area and their stall took up almost an entire hall. To emphasise the HAL presence at the show, the press-kit for the journalists came in the form of an executive bag containing the usual press releases, background information, a writing notebook with a pen and a HAL embossed digital timer. Even the cash flushed foreign companies who were competing with one another to secure a slice of India’s defence expenditure did not go beyond sheaves of releases and brochures. The HAL staffers bustled around importantly and the chairman, Ashok Baweja opened the press conference with words to the effect: “You all saw the magnificent air show in the morning. They all were HALL products. What more can I say about our organisation.”
The Russians, on the other hand, were strutting around with a smirk. Led by the umbrella, Rosoboronexport, they had a sizeable presence, comparable with the Israeli companies. Unlike the Americans (who came with F-15s, PC3 Orions, Super Herclues, Bell helicopters), they had not brought along any aircraft for static display. They didn’t need to. To everything that HAL laid claim, the Russians had the first claim. As one member of the Russian entourage pointed out, without exaggeration, “Almost everything that you see here is either made by us or is of Russian origin. After all, our relationship goes back a long way and HAL is now quite familiar with the Russian equipment.”
Though meant to be a live advertisement for Indian wares, the Aero-India proved to be a perfect place for the western companies to showcase their systems. The foreign participants, such as Lockheed Martin, Embraer, Rosoboronexport and Boeing among others, in their daily briefings, announced a number of agreements they had reached with HAL and the Defence Research and Development Organisation. Interestingly, even as foreign companies seemed eager to announce sundry agreements with Indian public sector undertakings (PSUs), the Indians were most reluctant to make a big deal of it. For instance, US giant Lockheed Martin Corpo9ration tom-tommed about the Technical Assistance Agreement (TAA) they signed with HAL a day prior to Aero-India. The HAL chairman, however, dismissed it by saying that HAL didn’t vet the press statement made by Lockheed Martin. The TAA essentially was a very preliminary Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) which may or may not lead to technical cooperation. Clearly, everyone was a seller here, And buyers were in short supply.
It appeared, and perhaps not wrongly, that the five-day Aero-India extravaganza was meant exclusively for HAL.. Not only to project its achievements but also to ensure that foreign companies understand that the runway to Indian aerospace runs through the corridors of HAL. Sure, there were a number of participants from the private sector. But their singular booths looked forlorn. Yet many were confident that HAL’s bilateral agreements with foreign companies will have positive spin-offs for them.
Hope and expectation were clearly the flavours of the show. There were liberal helpings of national pride as well, at least on part of the onlookers, many of whom had trudged in, courtesy friendly organisers and security personnel, to gawk at Indian prowess in the sky. Hundreds of people craned their necks to see the spectacular aerial manoeuvres by Indian piolets as they zoomed in and out of visual range. As the much-delayed light Combat Aircraft, Tejas, an indigenous HAL. Product with a foreign engine, took to sky the commentator went into an overdrive, listing various specifications of the aircrafts that has been in the making for over two decades. Curiously, the onlookers comprised largely of Indians; the sizeable number of foreign visitors showed little interest in either the air display or the painstaking efforts of the commentators.
Unlike most trade shows, this one, for reasons best known to organisers, did not follow the cardinal rule of such exhibitions. Non-business visitors, or rather picknickers, were allowed in the fair grounds on the trade days as well. They trooped in, on week days in their Sunday best: silk Kancheepurams and jasmine-marigold flowers in their hair. Men, women and children squatted all along the runway watching the mind-blowing air display. Those who didn’t know the officials enough to manage a free pass and could not afford to buy a one-day ticket; crowded the hillock just outside the air station to watch Indian entrepreneurship was clearly evident. Scores of vendors, selling fast-food. Water bottles, coconut water and other stuff quickly materialised outside the airfield to cater to this burgeoning crowd. Surely, the organisers would forgive one for mistaking Aero-India 2005 for a circus.
The foreign delegates were also not unaffected by the spirit of celebration. As the business hours closed at five in the evening, the British delegates popped beer cans at their stalls, completely unmindful of the Indian families who were still hovering around for a glimpse of God only knows what. One could understand the curiosity among people about the air show, it was indeed spectacular, but why anyone in his or her right mind (unless you are a trader or a duty-bound journalist) would spend a day inside various exhibition halls looking at strange metal contraptions which suspiciously looked like ball-bearings. The exhibition became even stranger after the first two days. While harried journalists ran from one press announcement to another press conference, in between mandatory visits to the media centre where some of them furiously filed their day’s find, the foreign delegates preferred to stay in their luxuriously appointed chalets, leaving the minions to man the exhibits which were increasingly being thronged by curious onlookers instead of business people. And as people overcome by curiosity started peeking and sneaking into various parts of the huge airfield the disposition of young airmen manning various entry and exit points started deteriorating, with some becoming rather rude, Sad, because on the inaugural couple of days they were not only polite; they smiled too.
A year of highs for Brahmos Aerospace