In the end, it was not even a molehill. The way the Congress president Rahul Gandhi, whom Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has called Clown Prince, often not without some justification, went about crying from the housetops, ‘scam, scam’, it seemed there must be something fishy in the Rafale deal. Gandhi sounded as if Modi had sold the country cheap, clinching the long-delayed purchase of 36 Rafale fighter aircrafts from Dassault Aviation of France. On Monday, when in response to an inspired PIL, the Government furnished the entire back-and fore-ground to the decision in a sealed cover to the Supreme Court, the shouting Congress was stunned into complete silence.
The purchase in flyaway condition of two squadrons of the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft, an acquisition first mooted by the Indian Air Force back in 2003, was one hundred per cent kosher, with no procedural or cost divergences. And, more importantly, it was urgently meant to bridge partially the yawning gap between the defence capabilities of our none-too-friendly neighbours and the IAF. In what should be a stinging slap against those mechanically parroting scam, scam, the cogently-argued document says, “As per available information, our adversaries inducted more than 400 fighters (equivalent to more than 20 squadrons) during the period from 2010 to 2015. They not only inducted 4th Generation Aircraft but also inducted 5th Generation Stealth Fighter Aircraft.
The combined effect of our own reducing combat potential and our adversaries enhancing their combat potential made the situation asymmetrical and extremely critical. An urgent need was felt to arrest the decline in the number of fighter squadrons in IAF and enhance their combat capabilities…” If this is not convincing enough why it was necessary to end the foot-dragging that went on for nearly a decade under the previous Defence Minister, A K ‘No Decision’ Antony, the chronological listing of the entire procedural drill, including price negotiations, capability enhancements, quality controls, offsets, etc, in a fully government-to-government deal effectively buries the scam the Gandhi had conjured up out of thin air a million fathoms deep.
Unbeknown to him, he was sold a lemon by sour lobbyists who had missed out on the Indian order after spending a lot of time, energy and money to win prestigious order. In the defence procurement business, rival lobbies are known to work on influential people, including sections of the media, to market their wares and, more importantly, to trash the rivals, often hinting at hanky-panky.
A desperate Gandhi keen to tar the image of Modi with the same brush of corruption with which the top Congress leadership has remained tarred for ages, latched on a hint of a scam in the Rafale deal while he was on a visit to the US. The Lockheed-Martin, a top US aircraft manufacturer, was one of the unsuccessful bidders as was the Eurofighter Typhoon. Even on price, it seems the deal for 36 Rafales in flyaway condition works out to be cheaper than the one being negotiated by the previous government under ‘Saint’ Antony.
Incidentally, Antony is on record as late as early 2014 saying that a) government had no money to buy the aircraft and this would be done by the next government, and; b) negotiations over costs were still under progress. Had Antony’s leader cared to pay heed to his statement to a news TV channel, he would not have taken to mumble scam, scam like a broken gramophone record. Again, the government submission says on record that despite prolonged negotiations between Dassault and HAL for a possible offsets partnership, these irretrievably broke down when the public sector white elephant insisted on “2.7 times higher Man-Hours compared to the French side for the manufacture of Rafale aircraft in India…” Like other bidders who had tied up with marquee names in Indian business as potential offsets partner, Dassault had been negotiating with Reliance Defence of Mukesh Ambani since 2011, and when the talks with HAL failed and the elder Ambani withdrew from entering the defence sector, his younger brother stepped in. But what was the response of the defanged and defenceless Congress leadership.
One of its spokespersons who plays politician on weekends to justify his seat in the Rajya Sabha, lamented that the price had not been made public. Those who concern themselves solely with price cannot be expected to care for the value of anything. Hopefully, the highest court in the land does. It should have the requisite courage to tick off the professional PIL brigade and publicity-seekers for wasting the precious time of the court.