Finance Minister Arun Jaitley is steadily losing his battle with the opposition, especially the Congress president Rahul Gandhi over the facts on Rafale deal. Right now, he is not the defence minister but he is taking the most active part in defending the Government decision on the new agreement on Rafale purchases against blistering attacks by Rahul Gandhi who has termed the deal announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Paris in April 2015 as the biggest scam in independent India’s history.
Keeping aside the political slugfest between the BJP and the Congress in the final year of the NDA regime on the eve of Lok Sabha elections in 2019, the deal has thrown up some issues which are of paramount importance in protecting the national interests of the country. Jaitley has not touched those issues in posing 15 so called questions to Rahul Gandhi.
The primary issue is what happened in the last fifty days before the announcement by the prime minister on the Rafale deal on April 10, 2015 that the deal was completely changed in its character and the public sector HAL was dropped to accommodate Anil Ambani led Reliance Defence Ltd. The sequence of developments leading to the final announcement of the prime minister makes it apparent that he had one point agenda to change the deal scrapping the role of the public sector HAL and he did not mind, in the process, in sacrificing the interests of the country’s leading public sector company in aircraft manufacturing.
As the defence experts mention, the NDA government took power on May 26, 2014 and by that time, the final understanding with the UPA government was reached for the purchase of 126 Rafales which involved the outright purchase of 18 fighters and the manufacture of 108 more in India on the basis of transfer of technology. This is the most important part as this helps in helping India through HAL to technologically upgrade the country’s R&D since generally the big foreign defence manufacturing companies are very reluctant on technology transfer. The UPA govt got this done in early 2014 and the French company Dassault Aviation signed a detailed work share agreement with HAL in March 2014 to have transfer of technology and production of Rafale in India.
Even in February 2015, eight months after Modi became the prime minister, there was no change as far as the French company was concerned. On February 19, 2015, fifty days before Indian PM’s surprise announcement about new Rafale agreement, the CEO of Dassault Aviation Eric Trappier told pressmen that he was confident on completing the final negotiations and signing the deal for full complement. HAL was in the picture as the collaborator. Then again on March 25, 2015, Trappier said in the presence of the HAL officials, “You can imagine my satisfaction to hear from the HAL chairman that we are in agreement for the responsibilities sharing, considering as well our conformity with the REP in order to be in line with the rules of the competition. I strongly believe that contract finalisation and signature will come soon.”
Thus, even fifteen days before the PM’s announcement scrapping the role of HAL and bringing down the number from 126 fighters to 36, HAL was actively involved as far as the French are concerned. But in Modi magic, things went in a different direction at the time of the announcement. The dropping of HAL and induction of Reliance Defence was the Indian decision and not the decision of the French company. PM announced his decision on April 10, 2015 but even two days ago, the Indian foreign secretary S Jaishankar had no inkling that such an announcement would be made and HAL would be excluded. So all indications suggest that this monumental decision having prime importance to the future security of the defence forces of India, was taken by the PM without going through the normal procedures with checks and double checks in such vital security area.
Jaitley’s question charging Rahul of giving contradictory figures make no sense as the former defence minister Manohar Parrikar himself gave contradictory figures about pricing after the PM announcement. This indicated that he himself was not in know of full details of the deal. The best course would be for the government to disclose the prices. The experts are quoting the price of Rs1611 crore per plane which is nearly three times more than the price allegedly agreed to by the UPA govt in negotiations in early 2014. If the government is confident that the pricing under the Modi agreement is far more favourable compared to the pricing under the UPA govt draft, it will be desirable for the NDA government to officially disclose the prices and nail the Congress “lie”. If Jaitley can prove that the Rafale deal has been in national interests and the prime minister has been able to extract a much better deal compared to the UPA, this is the best time to disclose the prices and nip in the bud all “propaganda” by Rahul Gandhi and the opposition. Will Jaitley and the Modi government take up this challenge?
Nitya Chakraborty is a freelance journalist. Views are personal.