'Knotty Situation': Rescheduled DefExpo Will Clash With Landmark Shows in Europe

Called off for unexplained reasons in March, the DefExpo will now happen in October – just four months before AeroIndia 2023, the country’s biggest defence show that begins in Bangalore on February 3, 2023.

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Chandigarh: By rescheduling to late October the 12th edition of the abruptly postponed DefExpo 2022 at Gandhinagar in March, India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) appears oblivious to the fact that not only does its revised exhibition calendar clash with at least two major military shows in Europe but also happens to be in the run-up to Diwali.

Besides, the biennial Land, Naval and Homeland Security Systems show at Gandhinagar’s Mahatma Mandir Convention and Exhibition Centre, was also taking place just four months before AeroIndia 2023, the country’s biggest defence show that begins in Bangalore on February 3, 2023, and one for which the MoD had ironically began inviting participation months earlier. This, in turn, also presented exhibitors with a Hobson’s choice of deciding between the two shows, only complicating further an already knotty situation instigated by the Expo’s earlier inexplicable deferral.

Meanwhile, on August 8, the MoD announced that the four-day DefExpo 2022, which was summarily called off six days before its March 10 inauguration for unexplained ‘logistical reasons’, would now be held between October 18-22. In its elaborate press release, in which the MoD waxed eloquent on several of its questionable reforms, it omitted to mention that the forthcoming Expo conflicted with the October 18-21 Euronaval show in Paris and the October 19-21 Future Forces Exhibition & Forum Exhibition at Prague in the Czech Republic.

Both shows are biennial landmark events, planned 20-24 months, if not longer in advance, to permit global participants to not only organise their demanding timetables, but also to ferry elaborate exhibits and, in some instances, even platforms for display and capability demonstration.

File photo of a Euronaval exhibition. Representative image. Photo: Ministero Difesa/Flick CC BY NC 2.0

“India’s MoD has made a mockery of DefExpo 2022 by jerking vendors around at will to pander to its inefficiency and unpredictability,” railed a potential exhibitor from a top European defence company. It, however, fails to realise that holding defence exhibitions is serious business and not a dog-and-pony show to be whimsically called off and subsequently rearranged at will, oblivious to massive organisational and personnel deployment costs, he remonstrated, declining to be named for obvious reasons.

Another prospective participant from the US stated that her organisation was ‘re-evaluating’ their budget and ‘juggling’ busy schedules for the revised DefExpo 2022, as not participating in it would be ‘adversely’ viewed by a ‘vindictive’ MoD.

“No vendor was expecting Monday’s announcement of holding the DefExpo in October, and it took most of us by surprise,” lamented the US company executive. “Consequently, our presence will, at best, be token as organising exhibits and the attendant paraphernalia at the last moment is impossible, as our resources had already been committed elsewhere to competing obligations,” she added, requesting anonymity.

Several other likely Expo partakers echoed similar sentiments, as many of the earlier 121 overseas exhibitors in March – of an overall total of 1,028 participants – were still smarting from the show’s arbitrary termination. At the time, almost all had completed erecting their display stalls at huge expense, whilst others had battled complex logistics to ship in heavy platforms to Gandhinagar. Additionally, they had all paid out non-refundable advances of Rs 50,000 per night for rooms in around 20 five-star hotels in Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar, or six times the normal tariff in the twin cities.

But above all, many possible exhibitors wanted to know from the MoD whether the ‘logistical handicaps’ that had precipitated the Expo’s earlier costly deferment had indeed been overcome. “Nobody,” said another European vendor, “told us what these logistical drawbacks were at the time and we were left guessing as to what they could be, as none seemed apparent.”

He further maintained that the fallout from super-power rivalry between the US and Russia over the ongoing Ukraine war had ‘shrouded’ the DefExpo, forcing its suspension. But, like many others, he had harsh words for the MoD which he said should have anticipated the effect the evolving Ukrainian situation would have on the participation of Russian companies in the DefExpo and reacted sooner.

Such arbitrariness by the MoD in brusquely calling off the Expo, added another US manufacturer, had depreciated India’s credibility as a dependable customer, especially when its military was embarked on diversifying its inventory of Russian materiel, whose continuance in service remained gravely imperilled by the Washington-led sanctions on Moscow for attacking Ukraine.

Surprisingly, in March, even defence secretary Ajay Kumar and other senior MoD officials were unaware of the Expo’s adjournment’, with the former even tweeting that ‘Great opportunities (existed) for VCs (venture capitalists at Defexpo) to invest in best technological brains of India’. But unknown to Kumar, the Prime Minister’s Office had already instructed the MoD to call off the DefExpo, even as an Indian Air Force (IAF) airlift of journalists to Gandhinagar to cover PM Narendra Modi’s inauguration of the event too had been announced.

Postponed for political reasons?

Furthermore, defence industry officials claimed that DefExpo had been rescheduled in October for “political reasons”, as the show was widely expected to result in several announcements regarding the establishment of military-related projects in Gujarat that faced state assembly elections around December. And, since the incumbent BJP administration was anxious to avoid a repeat of the 2017 polls, when it had registered a simple majority at the hustings, instead of a spectacular victory in Modi’s home province, the Hindu nationalists hoped to reap political mileage from these putative defence programmes in the state.

One such pronouncement expected during DefExpo was of erecting a plant at either Surat or Rajkot to licence build 40 of 56 C295 MW medium transport aircraft for the IAF to replace its legacy Avro 748M transport fleet. After negotiations lasting a decade, the MoD had, in September 2021 signed the long-awaited deal with Airbus Defence and Space for these twin-prop C295s, of which 16 aircraft would be delivered in completed form by Spain 2023 onwards. The remaining 40 C295s would thereafter be built in partnership with the private sector Tata consortium at this planned facility, via a transfer of technology, in a deal estimated at around $3 billion and one that would provide widespread employment in Gujarat and significantly boost the local economy.

Elaborating further, analysts and security officials pointed to the ‘auspicious’ timing of the Expo, which they said would conclude just two days before Diwali and four days before the start of Varsha Pratipada or Gujarati New Year, when locals start new account books called the Chopda to mark the beginning of their fiscal year in accordance with the lunar Hindu calendar.

BrahMos Aerospace at the Defexpo India in 2020. Photo: brahmos.com

Meanwhile, a handful of vendors who had signed up for DefExpo in March are believed to have accepted the MoD’s offer of partial reimbursement for their display stall advances, minus a substantial service charge for processing their earlier participation, which never ensued. The participation of many other overseas original equipment manufacturers, however, remains questionable, for now.

Since its initiation in 1996, India’s DexExpo was held every two years in Delhi till 2014, after which it became peripatetic and political in nature, taking place in the incumbent defence minister’s home state.

Much to the chagrin of participants, and even India’s armed forces personnel, the Expo was held in Goa in 2014 when Manohar Parrikar was the raksha mantri, in Chennai in 2016 under his successor Nirmala Sitharaman, and thereafter in Lucknow when Rajnath Singh ascended to that post. Industry officials said Gujarat was the designated venue this year as it was the prime minister’s home state.

In the meantime, Russian participation in DefExpo – reportedly the reason behind its earlier suspension – remains unknown. Hence, the big question that needs answering is whether the MoD will – or can afford to – embargo sanctioned Russian armament companies. A response is awaited.