The responses to the Arjun tank story that I did on NDTV, as well as in the Business Standard are revealing. The rationale behind most of the postings is: Ajai Shukla has seen the light! At last he’s come around to admitting what all of us knew all along: that the Arjun is a brilliant tank.
Many folks don’t read carefully… they just run their eyes over a page and jump to a conclusion. And then they turn into pamphleteers, guided by a pre-conceived viewpoint and using rhetoric and half-truths to purvey that point of view. For journalists, on the other hand, every word is important and describes events that are happening or have happened. That’s very different from the way pamphleteers write and understand things.
But let’s not go there. Let’s just answer the question that someone asked: “Mr. Shukla, I would like to know what information you have learned during the last 2-3 months which made you turnaround on your stand on Arjun.”
To begin with, let’s be intellectually rigorous. There are two avatars in which I write: one, as a journalist, and secondly, as an analyst. As the former, I don’t have a view; I only report what is happening. When I write as an analyst, I convey my views. And like a good analyst, it’s based on a clear knowledge of what’s happening.
For now, let’s just look at journalism.
In this specific case, I’ve reported all along on how the Arjun project is coming along, what is going wrong, what is going right, what the DRDO is doing and saying, and what the MoD and the military attitudes and policies are.
The position right now is… as my stories on NDTV and the Business Standard say… many of the problems that had plagued the Arjun have been sorted out. In contrast, one of the problems that afflict the T-90 has NOT been sorted out. Therefore, the army is trying to scuttle the trials so that it does not have to rework the armour acquisition plan. It fears that, at this point in time, the Arjun may outperform the T-90 in trials. The MoD has confirmed the cancellation of comparative trials and says this is because you cannot compare apples and oranges, the Arjun and the T-90, which is not a tenable argument because they were always about to compare apples and oranges.
That’s all the story says.
So the question above should really be phrased as: Mr Shukla, what has happened in the last two years (when you said on Bharat Rakshak that the Arjun had serious problems) that has changed what you are reporting (NOT changed your stand, because, remember, my story does not indicate what my stand is).
That would be the intellectually correct question, and that is the question that I will answer, even though what I’m about to tell you is not yet in the public domain. But then, I’ve had access all along to everything that is not in the public domain, whereas most others work off public domain statements.
Let me tell you the story of Summer Trials, June 2005, Mahajan Field Firing Ranges: This, the Arjun team from CVRDE believed, was going to be the big moment when they would prove themselves. The five PPS Arjuns were going to fire before the highest-powered army team ever to witness Arjun trials. The team consisted of: Lt Gen Pattabhiraman, GOC-in-C Western Command, Lt Gen Nagaraj, GOC-in-C South Western Command, Maj Gen Pradeep Khanna, GOC 1 Armd Div, Lt Gen DS Shekhawat, GOC 2 Corps, Lt Gen GD Singh, DGMF… all of them were present.
It was a typical June morning in Mahajan… heat shimmers, the sun already high at 8 pm, temperatures already pushing 45 degrees. When the first shots rang out as the tanks started zeroing, the crews came out and told the trial team that the LRFs were giving wonky ranges. Totally wonky. Like indicating 600 metres instead of 2400 metres. Switches were also tripping, for no accountable reason.
As the generals twiddled their thumbs and drank lassi and ate kaajus, the CVRDE team tried to find out what had gone wrong. After a couple of hours, they reached the conclusion that the electronics were unable to operate in those temperatures.
The generals got into their helicopters and left for their headquarters. The army chief, who was to attend the trials next morning was rung up and told to call off the trip. The Arjuns packed up and left for Avadi, for a major re-engineering of their electronics, to enable them to function up to 60 degrees.
To make the picture even rosier, mobility trials had indicated that the problem with the Hydropneumatic Suspension Units (HSUs) hadn’t been resolved either. The pistons were not strong enough; major re-engineering was required by BEML and the Kirloskars.
That was the situation in June 2005.
It got even worse that December.
That was when five Arjun tanks were to go for comparative trials. The teams that were re-engineering the HSUs and the electronics weren’t able to finish. So, after a big ceremony, after five Arjuns from the production line were unveiled at a function in Avadi by the defence minister, the carpets were rolled up, the slideshow put away, and the tanks rolled back into the sheds for work to continue.
Trials were out of the question at that time.
That was when I was posting on Bharat Rakshak and saying that the Arjun project was in serious trouble. It was. And that is when, without any knowledge of what was going on, the Arjun Brigade was insisting that the tank was outstanding and it was only being scuttled by a vindictive army.
To turn around today, when many of those problems have been fixed in the Arjun, and say that, “wow, we knew we were right, Ajai Shukla was so so soooo wrong”, is a bit rich. Most people didn’t know what was happening then, because I didn’t think it right to report all those details. They only know what is happening now because I’ve told them that the problems are solved.” I was right then, and I’m right now. They were wrong then, even if they’re right now.
So to say, they knew how great the Arjun was is a bit like saying… about a kid in a remand home who eventually turns out good… “Oh, I know that kid was good and everyone who criticised and corrected him were wrong. He’s turnout out good, hasn’t he?”
People who have strong positions, without knowing the facts, are really just pamphleteers.
This is not the end of the story. The Arjun will still have more problems; the T-90 will resolve its own crisis. This story will continue to be reported. But the savants who have already decided the ending are invited not to read the intervening account!