New Delhi: The Supreme Court ruled on Friday that it found no evidence of wrongdoing in the government’s decision-making process, as it rejected petitions for an investigation into the Rafale deal. The judgement is likely to become a matter of contention between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, given that Congress chief Rahul Gandhi has made it a key issue to attack the Narendra Modi government at the Centre, most recently during the assembly elections in five states.

The timing of the judgement is also significant politically, as it comes amid the winter session of parliament.

The apex court on Friday rejected a batch of petitions for a probe into India’s purchase of 36 French-made Rafale fighter jets, saying it found no evidence of wrongdoing in the government’s decision-making process or in the choice of Reliance Infrastructure Ltd as the Indian partner and refused to go into pricing details.

Soon after the judgement, the BJP lined up its top leaders to defend the government’s role and attack the Congress for raising the issue, claiming it had done so for political gains.

Senior leaders of the Congress, however, continued to demand a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) probe into the Rafale deal, pointing out that they had maintained that the Supreme Court is not the best forum to decide the issue.

In a joint press conference, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that on three issues on which concerns were raised by the opposition and petitioners in court—decisionmaking, pricing, and choice of partner—“the court has come out clearly. The verdict is absolutely there for all of us to see. The matter on Rafale has thoroughly been, through the court, laid to rest," she said.

Finance minister Arun Jaitley dismissed the opposition campaign as “fiction writing", which compromised national security. The deal negotiated by the National Democratic Alliance government had “protected both the security interests of India and the commercial interests of India," he said, ruling out a JPC probe on the issue.

“In a war of perception the truth always prevails," Jaitley said. “If they (the Congress) refuse to accept even the Supreme Court verdict just because falsehood was created by a family, certainly in our democracy, the family is not above the Supreme Court," he said.

The political exchanges resonated in Parliament, with the House being adjourned for the day over protests on the issue.

Responding to the BJP’s allegations, Rahul Gandhi said: “For a long time we have been talking about corruption in the Rafale deal. We have three questions—on pricing, choice of contract partner and the manufacturing place. We are presenting the case to the nation so that the government can give answers but not one answer has come."

On Friday, a bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi ruled: “In view of our findings on all the three aspects and having heard the matter in detail, we find no reason for any intervention by this court on the sensitive issue of purchase of 36 defence aircrafts by the Indian government."

The court ruled that “perception of individuals cannot be the basis of a fishing and roving enquiry by this court, especially in such matters".

Political analysts said observations such as these and the overall judgement could hurt the credibility of the Congress, which raised the issue to corner Modi. “Rahul Gandhi was trying to connect the corruption issue with the prime minister but with court’s observation this has not only backfired on the Congress but has also provided a counter narrative to the BJP, which is likely to raise the issue among the public," said A.K. Verma, a political science professor at Christ Church College, Kanpur.

Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and K.M. Joseph were the other members of the three-judge bench that was hearing the four petitions seeking a stay on the 59,000 crore Rafale deal, signed between India and France in 2016.

“It cannot be lost sight of that these are contracts of defence procurement which should be subject to a different degree and depth of judicial review. Broadly, the processes have been followed," the court said while turning down the plea of the petitioners for a Supreme Court-monitored investigation into the deal.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced India’s decision to buy 36 jets off the shelf in a government-to-government agreement in April 2015, cancelling the United Progressive Alliance government’s 2012 decision to buy 18 Rafale jets in a fly-away condition and manufacture 108 in India.

The delivery of the jets is slated to begin in September 2019.

The court refrained from ruling on the pricing aspect of the fighter jets—a central argument of the Congress is that the successor deal is much more expensive. “It is certainly not the job of this court to carry out a comparison of the pricing details in matters like the present," it held.

On the issue of choosing the Indian Offset Partner (IOP), the court said, “We do not find any substantial material on record to show that this is a case of commercial favouritism to any party by the Indian government, as the option to choose the IOP does not rest with the Indian government."

Anil Ambani-led Reliance Infrastructure Ltd has a 51:49 joint venture with Dassault called Dassault Reliance Aerospace Ltd, which has an offset contract of about 30,000 crore for the 36 Rafale aircraft. However, former French President Francois Hollande said the French government was given no choice in the selection of the IOP, with Reliance Group being suggested by the Indian government.

The Congress said the deal comes at the expense of a potential deal with the public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.

“We cannot sit in judgment over the wisdom of deciding to go in for purchase of 36 aircraft in place of 126. We cannot possibly compel the government to go in for purchase of 126 aircraft," the order said. “Our country cannot afford to be unprepared/underprepared in a situation where our adversaries are stated to have acquired not only 4th generation, but even 5th generation aircraft, of which we have none."

Reliance Group chairman Anil Ambani said, “I welcome the judgment of the Hon’ble Supreme Court today summarily dismissing all PILs filed on the Rafale contracts, and conclusively establishing the complete falsity of the wild, baseless and politically motivated allegations levelled against Reliance Group and me personally."

Mint’s Utpal Bhaskar and Pretika Khanna contributed to the story.

Reliance Group companies have sued HT Media Ltd, Mint’s publisher, and nine others in Bombay high court over a 2 October 2014 front-page story that they have disputed. HT Media is contesting the case.

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