New Delhi: The first few Rafale fighter jets arrived in India today, finishing their long journey from the Merignac airbase near Bordeaux in France.
The first fighter jet was handed over to the Indian Air Force less than a year ago in October 2019, in France, in a ceremony that was attended by defence minister Rajnath Singh.
The arrival of the first batch of Rafale aircraft in India has become a media spectacle over the last two days, with public interest likely heightened by the recent military tension with China in eastern Ladakh.
The Rafale contract itself has, over the last two years, been mired in political controversy, with opposition parties and civil society stakeholders raising questions over the process by which the deal was struck, the aircraft’s pricing and the choice of one major Indian offset partner (Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence).
Rafale is an excellent fighter aircraft & has great operational continuum with Mirage 2000. But two questions remains unanswered. One, why did govt reduce the numbers drastically in the new Modi deal considering a potential 2-front conflict is at our doorstep? And second, (contd)
— M K Venu (@mkvenu1) July 29, 2020
The allegations of crony capitalism spilled over to the legal domain, a development that was eventually put to an end by the Supreme Court refusing to order a probe into the deal and then later rejecting a review petition that pointed out flaws in the apex court’s reasoning.
As the Rafale fighter jets land at Ambala Air Force Station today, completing their 7,000-km journey, here is a look back at the questions and coverage surrounding the deal.
The controversy surrounding the deal in 2016 and 2017 revolved around the manner it was abruptly changed from an initial proposal to acquire 126 aircraft with technology transfer to a much smaller deal involving 36 fighter jets.
What sparked initial concern regarding the new deal were reports that former defence minister Manohar Parrikar was initially kept in the dark, only being told about it after the matter was decided, leaving him to publicly defend a decision that was “taken over his head and that senior ministry of defence officials warned him would be difficult to defend”.
In 2018, the controversial deal took a sharply political turn, with the Congress Party levying strong allegations of crony capitalism. At the core of this debate was whether Modi had gotten a better deal and whether it was done in an above-the-board manner.
The crucial questions that were asked and debated revolved around the pricing of the aircraft, the lack of a sovereign guarantee from France, how Reliance Defence’s name was allegedly pushed by the Indian government and why the Eurofighter’s ‘unsolicited’ proposal wasn’t used to renegotiate the price of the Rafale contract.
Another important read from The Wire in this regard: ‘Exclusive: Post-Rafale, Dassault Investment in Inactive Anil Ambani Company Gave Reliance Rs 284 Crore Profit’
In December 2018, after lengthy and sometimes contentious hearings, the Supreme Court dismissed a clutch of petitions that sought a probe into the deal. In its order, the apex court adopted two seemingly contradictory stances by claiming that its scope for judicial review was limited, but nevertheless it felt that there was no reason to “really doubt” the decision-making process by the Narendra Modi government.
On the issue of questions raised about the procurement process, the court believes that while there may have been “minor deviations”, they aren’t big enough to require “detailed scrutiny”.
As The Wire’s analysis notes though, the final judgement actually shows that there are a number of arguments and details that the apex court either ignored, side-stepped or merely accepted at face-value without further questioning.
The full text of the review petition filed by Prashant Bhushan, Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha argues that the Supreme Court’s December 2018 verdict was based on incorrect and incomplete facts that were supplied by the Centre.
The trio not only alleged that the procurement process had a number of significant deviations, but also called for perjury proceedings against certain government officials for suppressing information from the court.
In November 2019, the apex court put a final end to the legal part of the controversy by dismissing all petitions that called for a review of its decision not to order a probe into the deal.
The judgment was delivered by a three-judge bench comprising then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and K.M. Joseph, and declared that the review petitions “are without any merit”.
On the issue of errors in its earlier judgement, the bench concludes that either they have been fixed (with regard to the controversial CAG report reference) or are not important enough to have impacted its initial verdict (mixing up the Ambani brothers).
On the question of procedural deviations, the court acknowledged that there may have been different opinions expressed during the decision-making process (most notably the dissent note by members of the negotiating team) but noted that the mere presence of dissent doesn’t imply wrong-doing.