The mud-slinging over the multi-billion dollar Rafale fighter jet deal has taken a decisive twist after the Narendra Modi government divulged ‘most sensitive pricing, technical and weapons details’ to the Supreme Court on Monday. Even though the government was initially hesitant to do so, it seems to have finally given in to the pressure tactics deployed by Congress that cried foul on the deal. Congress president Rahul Gandhi had claimed that the NDA government agreed to pay 4-5 times the price hitherto offered by the UPA regime. Dassault chief executive officer Eric Trappier dismissed the Congress president’s charges. He pointed out that NDA deal under Prime Minister Narendra Modi was 9 per cent cheaper than earlier and cited the contract between the Indian and French governments. The government has decided to set the record straight on the issue and the affidavit to the Supreme Court submitted that “all requisite steps had been taken in the Rafale deal” and that all “defence procurement process was followed” in acquiring the 36 Rafale jets.
As per documents submitted to Supreme Court, there is no mention of Reliance Defence as the offsets partner for Dassault integral to the deal. Interestingly enough, Dassault offset obligations were 19.9 per cent while weapons supplier MBDA has committed to 6.27 per cent. Both the aircraft and weapons suppliers enlisted 21 and 12 tier-I sub-vendors respectively. And, nowhere does Reliance Defence’s name appear either as vendor or joint venture manufacturer. For three years, neither Dassault nor the MBDA were even obliged to divulge their joint venture partner for Indian manufacture of the remaining Rafale squadrons with full armaments.
Official documents elaborately detail why an inter-government contract was considered the quickest way given the huge weapons and 450-odd fighter aircraft acquisition done by both China and Pakistan. Besides, 2.7 times more man-hours proposed by HAL to produce the fighter planes at its Bengaluru facility, no firm commitment on timeline and irreconcilable differences with Dassault seem to have kept the state-run company out of the deal. Meanwhile, the policy for technology transfer, absorption and application of the newly acquired know-how will have to include the large Indian private industry. Unless our private players play a significant role in defence production, India will find it difficult to become a big player in the sector and also rein in its defence imports.
Opposition parties should come up with solid evidence, painting NDA with ‘corruption’ brush may not suffice. The Congress is expected to gun for the BJP and the NDA and in particular Prime Minister Narendra Modi in an election year. For instance, the processes involved and the timing of the deal would need clarity. In a democracy, the ruling party is bound to be answerable to the opposition, Parliament and the people at large. Hence, Modi regime has no shortcuts in dealing with allegations on the Rafale deal. In that sense it is a good strategy that could prevent the matter from snowballing into a major controversy in a politically charged atmosphere. It appears that politically sagacious minds have come to weigh in on the issue considering that the government had earlier told the court that pricing was too sensitive an issue to share with even the court. Handing over the pricing details to the court sends the message that the government has nothing to hide on the issue. In a tweet, Gandhi had said, “The PM knows. Anil Ambani knows. Hollande & Macron know. Every journalist now knows. Defence Ministry babus know. All of Dassault knows. All Dassault’s competitors know. But the price of the #RAFALE is a National Secret, that cannot be revealed even to the Supreme Court.” In presenting the details to the court, the government has now neutralised opposition charges on the issue.