CBI vs CBI: Prashant Bhushan claims Director Alok Verma shunted out to prevent him from probing controversial Rafale deal

Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan claimed in a tweet Wednesday that Central Bureau of Investigation Director Alok Verma was asked to go on leave because he was interested in probing the controversial Rafale deal.

Bhushan, along with former BJP ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie, filed a complaint—which named Prime Minister Narendra Modi and defence minister Manohar Parrikar—with the agency

Although there is no mention of the controversial Rafale deal in the shake-up of the top brass of the premier investigating agency in the intervening night of 23 and 24 October, officially Verma was asked to proceed on leave along with his deputy Special Director Rakesh Asthana against whom he is engaged in a severe turf war over the meat trader Moin Qureshi bribery case. Both IPS officers have levelled allegations of grave misdoings against each other.

The Rafale deal is fast turning out to be a political potboiler with both the Congress and the BJP getting involved in serious mudslinging from Modi to Congress president Rahul Gandhi. Calling the Rafale deal the "largest defence scam that the country has seen", Bhushan on 13 October hoped the CBI would act on the complaint made by him and two others against Modi in the matter.

Speaking at an event organised by the Mumbai Press Club, the Supreme Court lawyer said as per a PTI report that if the CBI failed to follow due process and register a preliminary enquiry (PE) or an FIR, he will take the case to the court. A PE is the first step of a probe by the CBI where the agency assesses whether the allegations have enough material for registering an FIR.

The Rs 58,000-crore Rafale fighter jet deal has been at the centre of a raging political row with the Congress accusing the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government of wrongdoing. The government has rejected all allegations.

"This (the Rafale deal) isn't merely a matter of securing commission for a particular company, as was the case in Bofors. This is the largest defence scam that the country has seen," Bhushan had said. "To begin with, it deals with much more money. It left the Indian Air Force high and dry, and by securing offset contracts for Anil Ambani's new company that has no experience in building fighter aircraft, it also puts our national security at risk."

The trio urged the CBI to register a PE against the duo on various charges under the Prevention of Corruption Act for a range of alleged offences committed in April 2015 in the course of buying 36 Rafale jets from French firm Dassault Aviation. In the complaint, Bhushan and the others questioned how Ambani's Reliance Defence, an Indian offset partner of Dassault, could be involved in the deal as it had no prior experience in the field and most other companies of the industrialist "were in debt."

In September 2016, India signed an inter-governmental agreement with France to buy the jets, the delivery of which is slated to begin from September 2019.

Bhushan alleged that while the government had refused to reveal the per plane rate, the deal was overpriced and that the French firm had been made to choose Reliance Defence at the insistence of the prime minister. Bhushan said the initial plan was to get 126 aircraft. While 30 percent of these were to be made by Dassault, the rest were to be made here in India by the state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, he said.

In his complaint, he alleged that just months before the deal was finalised, the then foreign secretary S Jaishankar said HAL would be involved in the process of getting the 126 aircraft. "It is significant that Mr Modi chose to keep the IAF, HAL, the Foreign Ministry, and even the Defence Ministry in the dark about his impending designs," the complaint read.

Taking cognisance of the written complaint by Aam Aadmi Party Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Singh on 6 March seeking a probe into the controversial Rafale deal, the Central Vigilance Commission n 16 May "considered the complaint and decided to send it to Secretary, Ministry of Defence, South Block, New Delhi for necessary action".

In his 12-point letter to the CVC, Singh wrote in point 6: "That a year after the NDA government came to power, Mr Narendar Modi (sic), Prime Minister of India, in his first visit to France, suddenly announced that India would buy 36 Rafale aircrafts, all in a fly-away condition. The announcement came in the absence of the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar. That the RDL's (Reliance Defence Limited) owner Anil Dhirubhai Ambani accompanied Modi during his visit and attended meetings with Dassault raised a few eyebrows. Following prima facie questions stood up at that time: Were corporate interests the moving force behind the Prime Minister's sudden announcement? Was the new government trying to annul the previous agreement? Is the government increasing the quantum of the previous deal? Does it plan to drop the idea of buying 126 aircrafts completely by purchasing a greater number of fly-away jets? These were some of the questions raised at that moment, but there were no clear answers; the government maintained a silence around these issues. After the announcement Manohar Parrikar defended PM Modi's decision. He later declared that 126 aircrafts were "economically unviable" and not required. However, then Defence Minister Parrikar assured people that the fighter planes will now be bought at better prices and terms than what the UPA government had finalised. He said then that the new fleet would be included in the Indian Air. Force within two years. He further said that after adding all costs, the cost per jet would be around Rs 715 crore. This, in itself, was more than what the UPA government had negotiated (UPA had claimed that each jet would cost around Rs 530 crore)."

Again in point 9, the Rajya Sabha MP said: "That the new deal is a violation of the Defence Procurement Procedure, because the Prime Minister unilaterally announced the purchase of 36 jets in the absence of India's Defence Minister and an inter-governmental agreement and secondly, since Dassault is no longer obliged to share its technology with HAL, and will now work with RDL for maintenance of jets and future defence production, the Modi government's deal was prima facie intended to "promote the interests of one industrial group" at the cost of a public sector unit."

On 8 October, Singh moved the Supreme Court and demanded an apex court-monitored probe by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) into India's purchase of Rafale fighter jets from France.

A Criminal Writ Petition has been filed before the Supreme Court in the Rafale deal, praying for the issuance of the Writ of Mandamus to constitute a Supreme Court-monitored SIT to look into the reasons for cancellation of the deal for 126 Rafale, whether any criminal conspiracy was there to benefit the new offset partner and whether the government had required permission and sanctions for the purchase of 36 Rafale in flyaway condition.

"Apparently, the government had not followed the rules made by it, the DPP," the MP said in a statement. Singh's petition questioned how the figure of 36 fighter jets was arrived at "without the formalities associated with such a highly sensitive defence procurement". The MP demanded to know why Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) was removed from the deal.

The petition said an investigation was needed to see if any "individual or intermediary company has/have influenced the decision making of the purchase of Rafale fighter jets at substantially higher prices in the backdrop of the statement given by the then President of French Republic. Singh sought restoration of the earlier deal for the purchase of 126 Rafale fighter jets which was cancelled on 24 June, 2015, and to "bar" the Dassault-Reliance Aerospace Ltd (DRAL) from manufacturing the Rafale jets.

In September, Singh sent a legal notice to Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman over alleged irregularities in the deal and threatened to move the court if he did not receive replies to his questions on various issues connected with the deal.

Updated Date: Oct 24, 2018 15:18:04 IST