New Delhi: A new judicial probe in France into allegations of corruption and favouritism in the controversial 2016 Rafale aircraft deal has sparked a political row in India. Opposition political parties and critics, who had raised various questions about alleged impropriety in the Rs 60,000 crore defence deal earlier, have begun to target the Union government again.
Over the last two months, the French website Mediapart (pronounced may-thee-aa-paar) has exposed a number of possible financial crimes in the Rafale deal, following which a fresh judicial investigation was ordered in France.
Among the first to respond was Prashant Bhushan, the eminent lawyer who had also moved the Supreme Court of India to demand a probe into the purchase of the aircraft. However, the apex court, then under Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, had dismissed a clutch of such petitions, rejecting the contention that there were grounds to file a FIR in the matter.
Speaking to The Wire, Bhushan said, “The Mediapart story further corroborates the whole string of evidence which we had placed before the Supreme Court seeking an independent investigation into the deal. Unfortunately, the bench led by CJI Gogoi preferred to blindly accept what the government told them in a sealed cover note which was later found to contain much false information, including about a non-existent CAG report. Thereafter, Justice Gogoi was given a Rajya Sabha seat immediately after retirement.”
He further said that it was “unfortunate that the Indian media did not follow up” the Rafale scam as had happened in the Bofors case.
“The French media followed up the story, which has now led to an independent probe regarding corruption, bribery, money laundering and influence peddling involved in the deal and puts the spotlight on Anil Ambani again,” he said.
The Mediapart probe into the defence deal shows that Ambani may have already entered into an agreement with French aircraft manufacturer Dassault two weeks before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the new Rafale deal. The new deal, in which Dassault had to supply 36 ready-to-fly aircraft to India in partnership with Anil Ambani’s Reliance group, was worth Rs 60,000 crore. It replaced the earlier concluded deal in which Dassault had to supply 126 Rafale fighter jets to India, out of which 108 were to be manufactured by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) through a technology transfer agreement. According to various estimates, the new agreement was three times more expensive than the previous deal.
Similarly, Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Rajya Sabha MP Manoj Kumar Jha told The Wire, “Whatever we have heard through the French media, it disturbs us. There was so much uproar in terms of pricing, differential purchase of equipment and so on, but all those who raised such questions were ridiculed.”
“If the Rafale deal is being probed now in France, and we are involved in it, it certainly tells us that the clarity which the nation needed was never provided to us. We shall wait for what the French court finds in its probe,” he said.
Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala, in a press briefing, renewed his party’s demands to constitute a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into the matter. “The emerging facts now call for a thorough JPC probe. We have always maintained that a JPC probe into the Rafale deal, and not a court hearing, will clear the air.”
“The scandalous exposé of the Rafale scam, involving massive corruption, treason and loss to the public exchequer, has finally been uncovered and laid bare. The Congress party and Shri Rahul Gandhi stand vindicated today,” he said, adding that many of these allegations have already been highlighted by the Congress earlier.
He asked, “Since the fresh allegations of corruption in the Indo-French defence deal are intricately linked to India, why shouldn’t there be a JPC probe here?”
“If France can probe the role of its former president, its former defence minister and perhaps its current president in facilitating the controversial deal, why shouldn’t India come clean on the matter?” he said.
“It is a matter of national security and dignity. It is not a contest between the Congress and BJP. It is natural that the Union government will be asked critical questions.” he said.
He added that his party will also raise the matter in the upcoming monsoon session of parliament.
Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi too tweeted alluding to the scam, using the Hindi saying “chor ki daadhi mein tinka“, which means that a guilty conscience doesn’t need an accuser.
चोर की दाढ़ी…#RafaleScam
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) July 3, 2021
Gandhi had fought the 2019 Lok Sabha elections on the plank of corruption in the Rafale deal, among others. His campaign slogan attacking Narendra Modi, “chowkidar chor hai“, went viral. Modi supporters and many BJP leaders had then decided to band together, with many of them claiming “main bhi chowkidar“.
BJP’s response to the allegations
Responding to the allegations, BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra chose to specifically attack the Congress and Rahul Gandhi for trying to mislead Indian people and resorting to peddling “lies” and spreading “canards”.
“Just an investigation has been ordered, and a magistrate has been assigned to probe concerns raised by an NGO regarding Rafale (deal). France as a sovereign country is in its right to do so. But does that mean that corruption in the deal has been proven? We don’t think so,” said Patra.
He blamed “corporate rivalry” in France, and vested interests of Dassault’s competitors, for the fresh allegations. He said that Gandhi is playing into the hands of Dassault’s competitors.
However, Surjewala hit back at the BJP and asked, “Can BJP name Dassault’s competitors? The fact is that only Dassault makes Rafale, and even the previous deal was to purchase Rafale, not any other fighter jet.”
Patra, however, didn’t go into details of the allegations of corruption raised by Mediapart, including the alleged crores of kickbacks by Dassault to an Indian middleman. Instead, he quoted from the Supreme Court’s order, dismissing the petitions that demanded a probe into the new Rafale deal.