Twists in the tale
For a long time, Rafale made headlines, marking discussions over the alleged corruption which grew to such scale that even the Supreme Court was dragged in to assess the veracity of the deal. And, the Apex Court's dismissal of the petitions citing irregularities in the contentious deal strengthened the Centre's argument. Despite that, the Rafale controversy persisted. It kept floating, with minor developments – majorly the Opposition scratching for something that will substantiate their strong allegation of a corruption-plagued deal. However, the Opposition went on an all-out offensive over a substantiated revelation by The Hindu citing Ministry of Defence's (MoD) protest against PMO's (Prime Minister's Office) intervention in the negotiations with the French over Rafale jets. The Hindu reported how the MoD objected PMO's "parallel parleys" with the French authorities, urging that it had weakened the MoD's negotiation. Besides the salient facts unravelled in the report, a strong remark is drawn against the government's submission of details to the Supreme Court in October 2018 wherein the negotiations over the deal were conducted by a seven-member team headed by Deputy Chief of Air Staff. No mention of PMO in the negotiations was cited which raises a question regarding the information provided to the Supreme Court. The official document that substantiates The Hindu's report also highlights the then Defence Secretary G Mohan Kumar's handwritten notation referring to the PMO intervention which undermines their position in negotiation. However, Kumar was quick to reiterate that the dissent note of MoD had "nothing to do with the price" of the jets but was "about sovereign guarantees and general terms and conditions". The Opposition threw spotlight to the report, condemning the government for a scam – an allegation that has been persistently mentioned many times. The extent of corruption is compared with the infamous Bofors scandal during Rajeev Gandhi's term. Much has been discussed regarding the controversial price at which 36 Rafale jets were purchased with €7.87 billion being an awkwardly high price which, primarily, has got the Opposition smelling corruption in the ruling party's intent. NDA government refused to disclose complete information on pricing of Rafale, even to Parliament, contending that its agreement with France on the 'Exchange and Reciprocal Protection of Classified or Protected Information' stands in the way of such disclosure. The Hindu, in its detailed report, cited how in the 2007 bid by M/s Dassault Aviation, the 'design and development' cost of €1.4 billion for India Specific Enhancements (ISE) was to be distributed over 126 aircraft originally planned to be purchased. Now, even though the negotiation cost was brought down to not-so-astonishing €1.3 billion in 2016 inter-governmental deal, the cost was distributed over just 36 jets. A sharp increase of € 25 million in the price of each jet as compared to the deal chalked by UPA was much higher than the 9 per cent reduction in the price of a basic aircraft offered by France in 2016. The 9 per cent reduction in costs that the government had cited was on the basic jet and not a fully-fitted combat ready jet as confirmed by Dassault Chairman and CEO. Thus, the nine per cent reduction in cost certainly did not account for the ISEs which surged the price of each jet by approximately 41 per cent, negotiating the price of 36 jets at €127.86 million against what was quoted originally by Dassault back in 2007. Though the SC had restrained from intervening in the pricing matter of the deal, it appears to be a necessity given how the Apex Court was not informed of PMO's role in the negotiations. It is, therefore, interesting to note how the Indian Judiciary will take this development which is a rather pivotal one considering the official dissent note of MoD that is in the picture. Had the Court been informed of this, the dismissal of petitions may not have been the outcome and Rafale could have been subject to extensive judicial scrutiny. While the Opposition claims that only a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) can unveil the concealed facts, there is a lot that judiciary can manage on its end should they be satisfied with the revelation made by The Hindu. The report brews political debate and open censure while carrying the Rafale controversy to a new phase. This recent development has reignited the Opposition camp, who have been proactively voicing the dubious nature of the deal, to strongly assert corruption in the deal. Though the political spat will continue to prevail, the Rafale debate has travelled a great length with objections on every turn. And, while it has so far managed to avert all of them and continue to be the flagship induction of new generation fighter jets, the nexus of arguments against Rafale have instilled gross uncertainty in the minds of commoners who are eager to find the truth.