The Supreme Court on Wednesday may have unwittingly provided the kind of opening the Opposition was desperately waiting for. By agreeing to relook at its own December order in the Rafale deal in the light of the file notings, published subsequently in a tangential manner by a Chennai-based paper, the court has in a way intervened in the poll process. Plain commonsense demanded that it reserve its order whether or not to reopen the case after the end of the campaigning.
Indeed, the author of the Rafale reports, a self-opinionated editor who is not above playing politics with cold facts, can exult along with the Congress boss at what will eventually prove to be a pyrrhic breakthrough. For, nowhere in the mountain of invective and allegations in the Rafale deal, has anyone even remotely provided a shred of evidence that illicit money changed hands.
As for procedural shortcomings and lapses, we have in this space reiterated several times, that given his penchant for prompt and often on-the-spot decision-making, the PM may have short-circuited painfully long processes to clinch the deal on the eve of his departure for a state visit to France. Protocol lapses do not a scandal make. Nor is there any doubt whatsoever about the viability of the Rafale warplanes either.
Nor for that matter is it a big issue that from the earlier 126 planes, India, for the present, contracted only 36. This was done on grounds of paucity of funds and the urgency to induct at least two squadrons into the IAF as early as possible. Even the much tom-tommed charge about Anil Ambani becoming a partner of Dassault falls flat, when it is realized that he is to fulfill a small portion of the total offsets involved.
Several rival bidders for supplying the multi-role combat aircraft were out to torpedo the Rafale deal given the huge stakes involved for their own defence industries. They could not have been sitting idle when Modi ordered the French warplanes only because it had passed all the quality and price tests over several years under the previous UPA Government. In short, there was no quarrel with the choice of Rafale.
The quarrel was with the choice of the French-controlled manufacturer who centered on Anil Ambani as the points-person to implement its offsets contract involving a number of big and medium-sized enterprises. That Ambani could not have gained a dime out of the Rafale deal was apparent when he approached his elder brother for some Rs 500-odd crores to stay out of prison.
If he had pocketed Rs 30,000 crores, as Rahul Gandhi would like one to be believe he had in the Rafale deal, he would not have had to go on all fours to his brother. Meanwhile, the objections of the Attorney General against the apex court re-opening its own order were far from convincing. It matters little how official documents have been accessed by the media. So long as their veracity is not in question one has to take note of them.
The apex court was right in undertaking to review its own order in the light of the documents published by the said newspaper. But it will be wrong on its part if it undertook a sort of fishing inquiry to evaluate the deal in minute detail. Not because there has been any corruption involved. No. Far from it.
But it would set a wrong precedent and encourage unsuccessful bidders for supply of defence equipment to try and block the successful bidder. In the name of transparency judicial interference in a legitimate executive function would encourage the abuse of judicial process in all defence deals. Some of the people involved in raking up the Rafale deal hide their own commercial interests behind a carefully cultivated persona as warriors for public interest.
Lawyers, as PIL entrepreneurs, must be taken with more than a pinch of salt. Ditto for self-styled crusaders who change sides depending on whether or not their own ambition is thwarted or fulfilled. Rafale is not a corruption scam.
It is a procedural lapse showcasing Modi’s impatience with the red tape and his propensity to play solo and pat himself for quick decision-making. Normal democratic processes are participatory and slow even at the very top of the executive. Modi often fails to appreciate that fact about the cabinet form of government.