New Delhi: The Supreme Court is set to rule on a batch of petitions on Thursday seeking a review of its December 2018 verdict that dismissed pleas that sought a court-monitored probe into alleged irregularities in the ₹59,000 crore Rafale fighter jet deal between the Indian government and French aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation.
A bench headed by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi had reserved its verdict on the review petitions on 10 May. The petitions have sought a re-examination of the December 2018 verdict, which found that due process had been followed in the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets.
A favourable verdict will be seen by the government as a vindication of its position that had already been bolstered by the April-May poll results. Allegations of price irregularities in the Rafale deal had been a major theme in the April-May 2019 general elections, with the Congress seeking to corner the Narendra Modi government on the matter and party chief Rahul Gandhi going to the people with the slogan “Chowkidar Chor Hai."
The verdict in the elections which saw the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) return with a stronger mandate however put paid to the campaign.
The Indian Air Force has since taken possession of the first Rafale aircraft with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh visiting France for the official handover ceremony on 8 October. The first Rafale aircraft are expected to be in India by April-May 2020.
The run up to the polls saw former ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie, and lawyer Prashant Bhushan filing pleas before the Supreme Court to review the Rafale acquisition process. The review petition was filed against the apex court’s 14 December order, which gave a clean chit to the NDA government in the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets from France’s Daussault Aviation. Sinha, Shourie, and Bhushan had also pressed for perjury proceedings against the government for allegedly suppressing information. They said that the government misled the court ahead of its December 2018 verdict. The three also accused the government of deliberately concealing crucial file notings related to the deal. They maintained that this included a dissent note of three members of the Indian negotiating team, stating that this necessitated a criminal inquiry into the matter. According to the petitioners, an earlier deal with Dassault Aviation was for 126 aircraft, of which 18 were to come in a flyaway condition while state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd was to build the remaining through transfer of technology.
Earlier, on 10 April, the Supreme Court had rejected the Centre’s preliminary objections to the review petition, allowing reopening of the case.
On its part, on 10 May, the government opposed the reopening of the Rafale case and asked the Supreme Court to refrain from examining the deal. The government argued that there was no precedent across the world for courts to scrutinise agreements related to defence purchases.
Attorney general KK Venugopal said a review was impermissible in such a sensitive case and cautioned the court that a defence deal was not subject to judicial review. He told the court that there was no prima facie case made out in the Rafale case when justice Joseph put forth the petitioners’ query to him as to why no action was taken according to an earlier SC verdict that makes it obligatory for an investigative agency to register a criminal case if a complaint is filed.