The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report on the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets from France’s Dassault Aviation has not yet been tabled in Parliament. There are indications that the government might table it on Wednesday—the last day of the 16th Lok Sabha. While it is safe to assume the report will give the government a clean chit, the fact that the CAG report is being brought to Parliament in this manner, at this late hour, means there will be no meaningful debate on its findings. Earlier, it was thanks to the Supreme Court (which gave the government a clean chit late last year) that the public got to know of the existence of the same CAG report. The Supreme Court had even said that this report had been examined by a parliamentary committee. Given all this smoke and mirrors, it’s hardly surprising that even now we are none the wiser about the multi-billion-dollar deal. The confusing shifts in stance and refusal to share details by a government that came to power on the promise of rooting out corruption and bringing in transparency is inexplicable.
The Manmohan Singh government was negotiating the purchase of 126 aircraft from Dassault. The final deal, signed on 23 September 2016 by the Narendra Modi government, was a substantially altered one. The plane count was less than one-third the original plan, but the opposition alleges that the new price is much higher than the old one and that due process was not followed. It also alleges the new deal benefited Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence at the cost of state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. This charge (which has been denied by all stakeholders) pertains to an offset deal of approximately ₹30,000 crore. Even here, there is little clarity. Adding fuel to the controversy have been recent investigations by The Hindu which show that the defence ministry had protested the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) undermining negotiations and waiving anti-corruption clauses in the deal.
As per government’s submission to the apex court, negotiations were conducted by a seven-member team headed by the deputy chief of air staff. There was no mention of the role of the PMO. Media reports now reveal that the PMO conducted its own parallel negotiations with the French. Even if the role of the PMO was only to overcome bureaucratic delays in an important deal for defence preparedness, not revealing this to the country’s highest court gives rise to doubt besides being questionable. Moreover, the concessions the Indian side made to the French are baffling, particularly when the buyer has all the levers to press in such a large deal. It’s ironical that a government that came to power on an anti-corruption platform is now offering in its defence the argument that inter-government agreements signed by the UPA, including the existing ones with the US and Russia, also did not have an integrity clause. Further obfuscation on the Rafale deal will only hurt the eventual user of the planes—the air force pilots. There are already too many flying coffins, and casualties are mounting. These pilots need modern and safer aircraft quickly. Such controversies will only end up delaying the acquisition process. The government should quickly defog the Rafale deal—in national interest.