Bang Bang Bangalore: India’s Military Spending Spree

“Kiss Kiss, Bang Bangalore” is one of my favourite episodes of The Simpsons. First aired in 2006, it is an important contribution to North American and global popular culture’s celebration of post-liberalization India that began in the 1990s. In it, Homer ends up being in charge of Mr. Burns’s freshly-outsourced nuclear power plant operation.  Apart from parodying earlier cinematic stereotypes of India à la Indiana Jones, the episode is valuable for demystifying the calculus behind outsourcing: American jobs are ‘Bangalored’ because the Indian workers have minimal or no rights.  But once Mr. Burns learns that Homer had introduced things like overtime pay, full dental coverage, and on-site daycare (“treating employees like human beings, that’s madness!”), the plant is promptly closed and shipped back to Springfield. In other words, the episode foreshadows a recent discovery of benefits related to ‘insourcing’, ‘reverse outsourcing’ or at least ‘near shoring’.

In India, Bangalore, or Bengaluru, may symbolize white collar professionalism and high rates of social mobility, but in many other countries this place name is a reminder that ‘our’ workers now compete – ‘must compete’, some politicians and business leaders would stress – with their peers around the globe. Talk to Bangaloreans and the limits of the Indian side of this symbolic politics became apparent. The vast IT and software ecosystem connecting a few R&D-heavy  powerhouses to hundreds and hundreds of tiny enterprises specializing in ‘back office’ services is of great significance for the national economy, but few educated, media-savvy Indians buy the talk of the ‘Silicon Valley of the East’.

Non-alignment works itself through military acquisition inasmuch as non-price criteria always include not only items such as technical quality and technology transfers, but also the ability to hedge India’s bets over the longer term.

This week, there is another game in town: the 9th edition of Aero India, one of Asia’s premier aviation shows. Anchoring this world is much-maligned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the country’s most important military aerospace manufacturer, which traces its roots to a shop set up in 1940 by a Jain industrialist and the princely State of Mysore. India’s space and defence research units also call the capital of Karnataka home, as do Boeing, EADS, Rolls-Royce, Honeywell and other global industry players keen to build and expand assorted technology and engineering service centres, R&D operations, joint ventures and tie-ups. A 2011 PricewaterhouseCoopers India report sees it thus: “There is a buzz in the air – not just from the engines of global [Original Equipment Manufacturers] landing in Karnataka, but also from the activity in the Government to promote the State as the aerospace hub of not just India but Asia.”  Indeed, right next to the Bengaluru International Airport, the state government is developing a thousand-acre park dedicated specifically to aerospace, which will come with its own China-style Special Economic Zone. On the first day of the air show, Karnataka’s chief minister also issued an order that establishes a broad platform for attracting investment through private-public partnerships. Thousands of new jobs will be created before 2023, he said.

Given current trends, the Indian aerospace sector is expected to outperform the global average for years, even decades. On the civilian side, rapid consumer market growth in the Indian Republic promises sales of almost a thousand planes before 2030; on the military side, more multi-billion dollar military hardware deals are on the way – like the one for the Dassault Rafale fighter (now delayed, but French president Francois Hollande will be arriving on Valentine’s Day to push the contract negotiations forward). In theory, this type of growth is likely to lead to more technological know-how and know-why at home, which should lead to even more business down the line.

The military market is particularly interesting to watch, as it constitutes an index of India’s strategic and high politics doings. New Delhi has indeed been busy exchanging a lot of buck for a lot of bang. Already the world’s second or third buyer of arms, the Indian government has earmarked over U.S. $100 billion for new weaponry in the coming decade. Judging by the past record, this spending spree is likely to benefit multiple suppliers. Smith’s India’s Ad Hoc Arsenal (1994), Subrahmanyam and Monteiro’s Shedding Shibboleths (2005) and Cohen and Dasgupta’s Arming without Aiming (2010) all agree that streamlined inventories are not a priority in India’s military acquisitions. Browsing the show’s Indian Air Force display involves learning about a bewildering variety of aircraft and equipment made in all corners of the world. Not surprisingly, those in the business of selling bang for the buck flock to Bangalore.

The procurement of defence equipment tends to raise eyebrows in general, but the diversity of the Indian inventories – think about all those extra maintenance, training, and overhead costs – can be especially puzzling. Different observers attribute different clusters of causes to it; but what few explanations omit is the idea and practice of ‘non-alignment’ (which includes retrospective and contemporary derivatives such as ‘international independence’, ‘strategic autonomy’, ‘non-alliance’, ‘non-reliance’, ‘polyalignment’ and indeed, ‘non-alignment 2.0’). In his acclaimed book Does the Elephant Dance? (2011), David Malone, a former Canadian High Commissioner to India, suggests that this policy has been a more-or-less effective option multiplier for New Delhi. Non-alignment works itself through military acquisition inasmuch as non-price criteria always include not only items such as technical quality and technology transfers, but also the ability to hedge India’s bets over the longer term.

This type of hedging carries advantages in the international arena for many reasons—above all because political capital accrues to those who can legitimately claim to be beholden only to themselves. India’s power in the next round of politics among nations will thus stem not simply from the latest purchase of military goods, but also from the manner in which it has amassed them.

Related Articles