The annual Defence Minister-level meeting of the Indo-Russian intergovernmental commission on military-technical cooperation on Wednesday in New Delhi is taking place in an atmosphere of negative media coverage.

The meeting, which is to discuss the painful issue of further delays in the delivery of the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya, has itself been pushed back from October 4 to 10 as Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov unexpectedly deferred his trip to India.

While the Russian side explained the rescheduling by the need for Mr. Serdyukov to participate in some programmes of President Vladimir Putin, a section of the Indian media speculated that Mr. Serdyukov had stayed back to meet Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, who arrived in Moscow on the day Mr. Serdyukov was to fly to New Delhi.

As it turned out, the postponement of Mr. Serdyukov’s trip to India had nothing to do with General Kayani, whom he had neither planned to meet nor did meet, and everything to do with Mr. Putin. The Kremlin asked Mr. Serdyukov to stay in Russia to finalise and sign the Defence Ministry’s largest ever contract for the purchase of the new heavy transport aircraft Il-476, which he had earlier objected to, and to accompany Mr. Putin to Tajikistan, where he sealed a crucial deal to extend by 30 years the lease of a major military base.

Making excuses for his late coming will be the easiest part of Mr. Serdyukov’s talks in New Delhi. He faces some tough questioning over the new delay in the delivery of the INS Vikramaditya, which is now likely to slip by as much as 10 months behind the December deadline specified in the current contract after the ship developed propulsion and some other problems during the recent sea trials.

Ahead of the talks officials in New Delhi warned that India could impose steep penalties if the delivery is delayed beyond the four-month grace period.

However, Russian officials insist that the Indian side shares the blame for the Vikramaditya problems. After all, it was at India’s demand that Russian shipbuilders did not use asbestos insulation to protect the ship’s boilers, which resulted in their overheating when operated at full power.

Indian sources here admit that it was not a wise decision to make the Russians modify their tried and trusted boiler technology. Even before the aircraft carrier returned from the sea trials at the end of September, Indian Navy officials signed a protocol agreeing to the use of asbestos.

Russians also point out that several other pieces of equipment that failed tests and need to be repaired were sourced from suppliers outside Russia that had been picked by the Indian side.

Both sides agreed though that overall the INS Vikramaditya had performed extremely well during the sea trials. Indian sources told The Hindu that their greatest concern was the new aircraft takeoff and landing systems installed on the carrier. They said the new ramp, arrestor wires and aircraft guidance systems performed flawlessly during flight tests.

The sources said the INS Vikramaditya would become “the jewel of the Indian Navy” when it gets inducted next year, but the aircraft carrier has become such a hot potato that they refused to be quoted even on this harmless compliment.

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