War, secrets and spies heralded the now-retiring MiG-21’s arrival in India.
Every word that the retiring air chief, N.A.K. Browne, and others said in praise of the MiG-21 the workhorse of the Indian air force for half a century, which is also being retired after yeoman service is eminently well-deserved. The Soviet combat aircraft that Moscow gave us willingly played a stellar role in the 1965 and 1971 wars. However, it is surprising that no one has taken the trouble to recall the rather exciting history of the acquisition of this excellent aircraft. So here goes the instructive tale.
At the start of 1960s, the Cold War was its height. A four-power East-West summit in Paris had just fallen flat because of the flight over the Soviet Union by America’s U-2 super-spy plane, which was shot down. Both the United States and Britain, therefore, strained every nerve to dissuade India from going in for the MiG-21 or any other Soviet weaponry. American effrontery was unbelievable. Having supplied Pakistan with Sabre fighters already, the US had also started gifting it the more sophisticated F-104s, also called Starfighters. In no mood to offer India any lethal military equipment (even though it had given us three squadrons of C-119 transport aircraft in 1954-55), Washington “urged” New Delhi to buy British Lightning aircraft, wrongly claiming that it was better than anything the Soviet Union could offer. Britain was, of course, very keen to sell Lightning fighters to India, but wanted payment in cash. This country had no foreign exchange and was, in fact, busy pruning the Second Five-Year Plan to slash expenditures in foreign currency.
John Kenneth Galbraith, then the US ambassador to India, recorded later that he and some others had then advised President John F. Kennedy to pay the British for the aircraft and recover the amount from India in relatively small instalments. JFK’s reply was: “Why should we be so foolish as to pay millions of dollars to save the Indians from their folly?” There was no such problem vis-à-vis the MiGs. The Indo-Soviet trade was in rupees and was basically barter. So we paid for fighter aircraft in “shoe-uppers, bananas and tea”.