Southern Soiree

DefExpo 2018 showcased India’s military might to the local populace

Ghazala Wahab

Chennai: Good news first. Contrary to the expectations and belying all fears of the participants, DefExpo 2018 was organised reasonably well and managed to hold itself together for the three days which matter; by the end of which, most exhibitors had left anyway leaving the venue open to public visitors. Unlike the previous such shows in India, both DefExpo and Aero India, public visitors, family members with children in tow were not allowed on the first two days. Interestingly, at Aero India, which is held at air force station Yelahanka, families are allowed to get in even on the first day!

Indian Navy’s Sea King helicopter airlifts MARCOS from the shore of Bay of Bengal in Chennai during a demonstration at DefExpo 2018

Perhaps, two factors ensured that this did not happen at the 10th edition of DefExpo. One, since the inauguration by Prime Minister Narendra Modi happened on the second day of the Show (a first of its kind), the venue had to remain sanitised till he left on the afternoon of April 12. Hence, access was regulated. Two, though the organisers ran a bus service between Chennai and the DefExpo venue, it was nearly a two-hour trudge in the hot and humid weather; a huge deterrent for regular sightseers who get free passes. As an aside, even FORCE got no request from anyone (from taxi drivers to hotel staff, as usually happened in earlier Shows) for free entry passes. Either the locals were not interested in DefExpo, despite the lure of the live demonstration; or the effort was simply not worth their while. This was yet another first.

The big highlight of the Show, as mentioned earlier, was live demonstration, which was held on the beach across the road from the exhibits, which included the debutant Advanced Towed Artillery Gun System (ATAGS), jointly made by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Kalyani Group’s Bharat Forge. On the beach, as land systems like Arjun tank, bridge-laying tank and anti-mines trawl system moved on the ground dramatically kicking up sand, Su-30MKI and Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) fighters zipped past overhead. Also, brought in for demonstration were such HAL-made rotorcraft as Advanced Light Helicopter Dhruv, Light Combat Helicopter and Light Utility Helicopter. While Indian Navy’s MARCOS slithered down from the old war horses Sea King and Chetak helicopters, far in the horizon, one could see the silhouettes of the Indian warships –- frigate INS Sahyadri, corvette INS Kamorta, amphibious ship INS Airawat, offshore patrol vessel INS Saryu and the tanker INS Shakti --, which frequently sailed in from the Chennai harbour where they were located for the duration of the Show. It was all very picturesque and offered great photo-opportunities.

For good measure, big advertisements all along the DefExpo venue as well as in the city invited people to take advantage of this opportunity and embark the Indian naval ships so that they could get both a sense of pride and security. Interested people were asked to reach Island Grounds close to the Chennai harbour from where they were to be taken to the jetty in batches of 50. This was not all. Indian Army’s Officers’ Training Academy, Chennai was also opened to the civilian visitors on April 13 and 14, so that they could get a first-hand reassurance about the quality of training army officers, both men and women, were getting! In hindsight it appears that the idea of DefExpo in Chennai was more about ‘know your military’ than defence industry!

Clearly, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who probably played the stellar role in the relocation of the Show to her home state and who remained at the Show through the three business days (this was the show of several firsts), had overseen the arrangements personally. Rumours were rife, weeks before the Show, that the defence minister had chosen to hand over the organisation and management of DefExpo to Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), instead of Defence Exhibitions Organisation as she was extremely pleased with the way HAL had organised the global business summit in Chennai a few months before DefExpo. It was at this summit that Sitharaman had announced Chennai as the venue for the show. And lest the political message was lost on her potential constituents, she had made the announcement in Tamil.

However, at the customary defence minister press conference on the first day of the Show, she was at pains to explain why the Show was shifted to Chennai. In fact, this explanation formed part of her opening remarks, which by and large steered clear of any policy statements on either defence production or procurements. After all, those had to be the preserve of the Prime Minister who was to inaugurate the Show the following day.
According to the minister, the decision to hold DefExpo in Chennai was reflective of Prime Minister’s drive to break out of the Delhi-centric mindset and take the Show to different locations. She thanked her predecessor Manohar Parrikar for taking DefExpo to his home state Goa and suggested that the next DefExpo might as well take place in Maharashtra, given that her junior minister Subhash Bhamre is from that state. (Why this argument should not apply to Aero India which has consistently been held in Bengaluru was not specified). Having said this, she insisted that Chennai was not chosen on grounds of parochialism.

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