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Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | Court put to rest political as well as legal pitches

Before current Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi demits office later this month, the Supreme Court has given some important judgements in a variety of areas—religious disputes and the ‘neutral’ role of the state as in the Ram Janmabhoomi and the Sabarimala cases, and the issue of transparency and accountability in defence purchases, as in the judgement on the original and review petition for Rafale purchases.

It is the second that I turn to now: In 2015, the NDA government went ahead with a decision to purchase 35 fighter jets from the French company Dassault Aviation, with an offset clause wherein a defence firm led by Anil Ambani would be Dassault’s local arm for producing parts for the jet.

The context of the NDA government decision was the need for urgent modernization, a stand averred even by the outgoing Congress-led government, which had hoped to buy 126 Rafale jets, albeit under different terms and conditions, wherein Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) would have been producing a large number locally. Overall, defence expenditure is a proportionately high allocation of the public budget, and amounts to nearly 1.6% of the GDP. But those advocating modernization of forces and the equipment used find these levels low—the lowest since the war with China in 1961.

Rafale purchases are in line with these demands, as also in sync with the emphasis of the new NDA government on national security. Historically, both UPA I and II governments had been unable to complete the purchase procedure, and this was seen as an instance of “policy deadlocks" of the erstwhile Congress led government, compromising the security of the nation.

The NDA government’s decision to speed up the purchases through a government-level deal with fewer aircraft and the offset clause benefitting a particular businessman rather than HAL, evoked a sharp political reaction. But there was a wedge here: While in court, the petitioners were seasoned lawyers and politicians—Prashant Bhushan, Yashwant Sinha, and Arun Shourie—in politics a novice, Rahul Gandhi, hit the street accusing the Prime Minister of mala fide intent. There was hope that this could turn out to be a Bofors-like moment that shook the formidable parliamentary majority of Rahul’s father Rajiv Gandhi. Today, both the legal pitch and the political one have been put to rest by the court.

The court has found no merit in the complainants’ petition and rejected their plea for an investigation by the CBI. It had earlier been convinced that the procedures followed with respect to the choice and pricing, and setting up the offset clause were sound in legal judgement. On a separate contempt petition filed by Meenakshi Lekhi on the purported statements made by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi—the slogan with which he tuned the political pitch for the polls—chowkidar chor hai (the gatekeeper is a thief, an allusion to PM Narendra Modi)—the court let him off with a warning. Gandhi had also stated that the French President Emmanuel Macron had told him that the terms of the deal could be disclosed—in contrast to the stand of the Indian government that the details could not be disclosed in national interest. Politically, this confirms the immature political stand of Gandhi. Although there is no final word, or last date in politics, this does damage further the possibilities that Gandhi may ever aspire to lead India’s grand old party and its claim for power in a capable and responsible way.

The one simple conclusion is that neither through the court route can the Modi government be singled out for governance errors, nor can politics of the street resort to irresponsible name-calling. Politics of opposition too needs to be credible, and find fault-lines that resonate with the people.

Manisha Priyam is a senior academic and political analyst.

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