A twist in the Rafale story

The latest turn in the Rafale story has come from Paris. Former French president Francois Hollande has said that Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence was chosen by Dassault Aviation, the makers of the Rafale fighter aircraft, at the instance of the Modi Government. The Defence Ministry has denied the claim. The facts suggest that Hollande might be desperate to shift the blame. A quid pro quo arrangement is stark clear here. It is like this. Ambani’s entertainment company financed a French film ~ Tout la-haut~ starring his partner, the actress Julie Gayet. Of course, this was not the first film financed by Ambani. A few years ago, he had produced an excellent film, ~Lincoln.~

Therefore, he could argue that he was in the global entertainment business and just happened to finance a French film starring Julie Gayet. But the position of the then French president Francois Hollande was somewhat different. Given that Dassault Aviation is government-controlled, the selection of Ambani’s firm for fulfilling the offsets programme of the Rafale deal with India, was entirely at its own discretion. However, this did not preclude the Indian side volunteering suggestions in this regard, something contracting parties very often do. Yet, the fact that Hollande was beholden to Ambani for financing a film starring his current live-in partner would suggest that he felt obliged to repay the debt. And once this fact became public in France the local media went after him, making out a valid case of conflict of interest.

Read in this context, his response to the criticism from the French press that Ambani was given offsets job does appear to be a clear bid to shift the blame and save his own skin. Nonetheless, there is more than meets the eye in the on-going Rafale controversy. The Government has been less than candid in responding to the Congress criticism. Admittedly, it is not even Rahul Gandhi’s case that any bribes were involved in the Rafale deal, though he suggests it to be a case of `crony capitalism.’The fact that the junior Ambani is neck-deep in debt, with the lenders knocking at his door daily, it cannot be anyone’s case that he had spare cash to throw about for securing such orders. After having started and shut down various businesses in recent years, the younger Ambani brother has zeroed in on the defence sector. He apparently has a huge work order from a US Government entity in this sector. The Rafale offsets was his second or third contract. Even though he denies any wrong-doing or favoritism in partnering Rafale, the onus is now on him to clear the air. He should offer a convincing account of the circumstances attendant upon his contract with Dassault Aviation.

Politicians will settle their own battles but instead of slapping cease-and-desist notices on media houses from writing about his agreement with Rafale, Anil Ambani should come forward to disabuse the growing impression that he snagged the deal for offsets through underhand means. On its part, the Modi Government should stop offering minor morsels of clarifications and rebuttals. Instead, it should silence critics by asserting that not unlike demonetization, the Rafale was an on-the-spot decision meant to end the uncertainty over the acquisition of the multirole combat aircraft the Air Force was keen to add to its arsenal for over two decades but which A K Antony would not do given his tendency not to take any decision, right or wrong. The Prime Minister certainly did no wrong. His intentions could not be questioned but just as in the case of `notebandi’sheer administrative showmanship in such matters with huge ramifications entails a price. We know the outcome in the case of demonetization. Rafale is an excellent aircraft. Its long-delayed acquisition by the Air Force could have been less controversial had the government acted calmly and without haste. But all because it was keen to bolster that 56-inch chest further by claiming quick, on-the- spot decision, it has now a first-rate controversy on its hands. Even a hint of arbitrariness in such weighty matters can have political costs.

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