Prof. International Politics, JMI
The controversy on the Rafale deal refuses to die down, although the Supreme Court rejected the PIL and a petition seeking its intervention for investigation into the deal. The Indian National Congress backed by other opposition parties allege that the ruling BJP made huge money in the deal, whilst BJP and he government accuse the Congress of raising a bogey and compromising the national security.
The petition filed by senior leaders of BJP itself, Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shouri, and the lawyer Prashant Bhushan allege the Prime Minister of “criminal misconduct….. and gross misuse of the friendly media to purvey falsehood and drown vital facts and questions in an avalanche of abuse”. It should be recalled that the Prime Minister himself, in one of his visits to Paris, clinched and announced the new deal of buying 36 fly-away aircrafts. Hence he is the main target of these petitioners and the Opposition.
Some of the antagonists have even said that “Rafale is the biggest scandal in defence since independence”, and they would make it an issue in the coming Parliamentary elections unless a Joint Parliamentary Committee is constituted o investigate and come out with the truth. In fact, as I write this, Parliamentary proceedings are being stalled by the Opposition until the demand for a JPC is conceded by the government. The stalemate is likely to continue if no reconciliation is brought about on the issue.
So far, the ruling party is not budging, terms those questioning or doubting the deal as anti-national. Naturally, the mystery deepens in the minds of the people and worries many observers about the authenticity of the deal and the veracity of the statements made by the warring political parties. Let us aim at demystifying the debate by placing some facts that raise questions to be answered.
Purchase Agreement before the Parliament invoking the ‘confidentiality clause due to national security reasons’ and treat these as classified information. But others in the know of the deal deny the existence of any secrecy clause in the contract. The French President Emmanuel Macron has said in an interview to an Indian Journal that, “how much is to be disclosed is entirely left to the Indian government”.
The bones of contention in the deal are mainly three- the Process, the Price and the Person. In this deal, the person in the midst of the controversy is Anil Ambani who has been given the offset contract in an ‘arbitrary manner’.
In 2001, the need for buying fighter aircrafts was identified. The Request for Proposal (RPF) was issued in 2007, and after a due process of selection, Rafale was chosen in 2012. The UPA regime in 2007 defined the need for buying 126 aircrafts in terms of : (i) the Air force should get sophisticated aircrafts fast as MiG 21 and MiG 27 were to be retied; (ii) advanced technology has to be acquired to beef up the capability of the Air force; (iii) Indian aerospace industry needs to be rejuvenated; and (iv) Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) would acquire advanced manufacturing capacity, and India will be self-reliant in producing state-of-the-art aircraft.
There were six bidders initially: Lockheed Martins’ F-16s, Boeing F/A -18s, Euro fighter Typhoons, Russia’s MiG- 35, Saab’s Gripen, and Rafale. Two were shortlisted, Rafale and Euro fighters, but the former bagged the contract as it was the lowest bidder and easier to maintain. Rafale are twin-engine Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) manufactured by the French company Dassault Aviation. They perform a wide range of simultaneous roles such as air-supremacy, interdiction, aerial reconnaissance, ground support, in-depth strike, anti-ship strike, buddy-buddy refuelling, and nuclear deterrence. The cost initially agreed was 10. 2 billions USD or 54000 crore, 18 of them in fly-away condition, and the rest was to be made by HAL, the public sector unit on defence manufacturing.
Yet, after Rafale was chosen, the negotiations went on for 4 years from 2012 to 2016. The UPA government came in for criticism for and pricing and offsetting conditions etc. Then suddenly, the Prime Minister, on a tour to France, announced that India will buy 36 fighter aircrafts in fly-away conditions in a government-to- government deal. The NDA government signed the contact on 23 September 2016 for 7.8 billion euro or 58000 crore. These 36 ready-to-fly aircrafts were to be delivered in 2 years after the contract.
The process of having such a huge def3nce purchase is suspect. Even the Supreme Court mentioned in its judgement the lapses in procedure although it seemed to ignore it for the sake of national security etc. The usual bodies in defence procurement, the Defence Acquisition Council and the Cabinet Committed on Security were bypassed.
Also, the questions remaining unanswered are: why 36, not 18 aircrafts as it was originally agreed, how was this number fixed; second, why manufacturing in India was not ensured as it was envisaged in the RPF, even making a mockery of NaMo’s pet slogan ‘Make in India’; third, there was no mention of transfer of technology, and fourth, what happens to the rest of 90 aircrafts out of 126.
The second bone of contention is the pricing. It is claimed by the government that 36 fly-away aircrafts are cheaper than the 18 originally agreed on; the actual higher price is due to India-specific add-ons like new weapons package, and the logistical support. The weapons mentioned are; Meteor, an air-to-air missile covering 100km which can take out any enemy aircraft, and Scalp, long-range ground attack missile of 300 km range. Other add-ons are logistical support and post-purchase maintenance tec. It may be mentioned also that in the earlier deal, the offset benefits were to be shared between HAL 70 per cent and Dassault 30 per cent.
The opponents contest that there are any add-ons, in fact “add-ons are cock and bull after thoughts”. It has been stated that by the CEO of Dassault that “the same configuration as has been tested and approved by the IAF in the MMRCA evaluation is maintained.” Then where is the justification or the additional costs? Originally, 126 aircrafts including 18 ready-to-fly were costing 42000 crore, now 36 fly-away ones cost 54000 crore. What a staggering surge in price!
The third ‘scandal’ is he person in Anil Ambani who was awarded the offset contract. Anil Ambani’s company was in heavy debt, he has never made an aircraft in his life. How was he brought in? Anil Ambani’s induction into the deal is as incompressible as dropping of HAL is inexplicable.
Curiously, only days before the new deal was singed tow companies were incorporated; Adani Defence System and Technologies Ltd. and Reliance Defence Ltd. Anil Ambani even travelled with the Prime Minister when signed off the deal in Paris. Here, the government contention is that it is up to Dassault to choose its partner in India and GOI has no role in it. But “even if the Dassault provides the name, it is hard to imagine how GOI does not provide its opinion given the political and economic dimension of such a contract. The former socialist president Francois Holland in fact said that GOI imposed Anil Ambani on the French side.
From the above account, clearly, the allegations of collusion, lack of transparency, and crony capitalism may stick unless the government comes up with convincing rebuttals.—INFA