Pakistani Schadenfreude

A Pakistani news agency’s reporting of the problems of India’s Dhruv helicopter shows how far ties have to go.

The charm offensive undertaken last week by Pakistan’s new foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, on her first official visit to India drew widespread attention for the promises of a ‘new era of bilateral ties’ and of a recalibrated ‘process of engagement and…normalization’ which she brought with her from Islamabad.

But even as Khar was making her graceful and conciliatory remarks, it was business as usual in other branches of the Pakistani establishment. On Wednesday, the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP) – the country’s government news agency – published an extraordinary news story whose sole purpose was to embarrass one of India’s most prized defence programmes.

The article focused on India’s sale of indigenously developed Dhruv utility helicopters to Ecuador in what at the time was a breakthrough deal for the Indian defence industry. The Ecuadorean Air Force bought seven Dhruvs from India’s state-run aviation firm Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for $50 million in 2008, but, as the APP story described with scarcely concealed delight, the programme has allegedly run into problems centring on maintenance issues and costs.

It’s hardly news to report that India’s aviation sector has had a difficult time. HAL’s two flagship programmes – the Dhruv and the Tejas light combat aircraft – have both run way over budget and many years behind schedule, not to mention delivering aircraft whose performance remains under scrutiny. Both ‘indigenous’ projects were also heavily dependent on foreign technology, and Ecuador remains the only foreign buyer that HAL has found for the Dhruv to date.

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But it seems strange that a Pakistani government agency should take it upon itself to shine a light on these issues. Press releases rubbishing a commercial competitor are common enough, but Pakistan doesn’t build any helicopters that might have to fight the Dhruv for orders. Pakistan, just like India, has designs on becoming an exporter of defence materiel, but if it does ever find itself competing head on with Indian aerospace products it will probably only be with Chinese kits assembled in Pakistani factories.

So what we have here is a case of pure schadenfreude – unless, of course, the story was published at the behest of a country that does have a stake in seeing the Dhruv fail in the South American market (the US, you would think, is the only helicopter-manufacturing country with that kind of leverage in Islamabad). What this episode really illustrates, however, is that it will take a lot more than charm and good intentions to reset Indo-Pak relations. Khar’s message may have gone down well in New Delhi, but she needs to turn right around and turn that charm on some of her own government departments.