Forget François Hollande's 'revelation'; Rafale won’t be to Narendra Modi what Bofors was to Rajiv Gandhi

When it comes to lucrative foreign deals, French presidents are notorious for counting chickens before they are hatched. Élysée Palace drowns handpicked guests in champagne and caviar even before a deal is signed. Such is the frenetic hurry of French leaders to turn foreign deals into political victories of their own.

Nicolas Sarkozy was something of an expert in this, as French weekly L’Experess once said. During his term as president between 2007 and 2012, Sarkozy twice “announced” the Rafale deal with India even before it took final shape. The second time, he did it was just three months before the 2012 French election.

Sarkozy was ecstatic because he had failed to sell Rafale to other countries earlier. The French media alleged that he had even taken his famous wife Carla Bruni to Brazil to charm its government into signing a deal. Brazil refused, but India agreed to talk. In his election campaign, Sarkozy boasted that the India deal, which was not yet fully one, would perk up the sagging French economy. He lost that election for many reasons.

The deal was formally signed only in September 2016, by which time Narendra Modi was India’s prime minister and François Hollande had replaced Sarkozy. Even Hollande boasted of the deal in his 2017 campaign to win votes. He too lost for a variety of reasons.

 Forget François Hollandes revelation; Rafale won’t be to Narendra Modi what Bofors was to Rajiv Gandhi

File image of former French president Francois Hollande. AP

Selling Rafale was important for France’s economy. In 2011, Sarkozy’s defence minister said that Dassault, the company that makes the aircraft, would stop production in 2021 if it didn’t get enough export orders. Rafale was also considered too sophisticated and too expensive to sell. It was not surprising that Hollande bragged about the India deal. It was also not surprising that Hollande last week claimed to be lily-white clean after a controversy broke out in India over the selection of Anil Ambani’s Reliance group as an “offset” partner of Dassault. He said it was the Indian government which had proposed Reliance and Dassault had no choice but to accept it.

Quick to grab credit for any foreign deals, French presidents are also wont to wash their hands off anything that might remotely show them as political buccaneers. Hollande has as many political enemies in France as Modi has in India. It must be remembered that though the French had hoped that the socialist leader would pull the country out of the abyss of scams left behind by Sarkozy, and voted for him in 2012, his “champagne socialism” made his country’s economic paralysis only worse. Though he himself was not directly involved in a scandal, Hollande’s credibility took a knock when he defended cronies steeped in corruption. Nobody was really surprised that Hollande managed to make himself France’s most unpopular President ever.

Two sets of questions

But an accuser’s flaws don’t necessarily turn the accused into an epitome of integrity. Despite Hollande’s dubious record, his word on the Rafale deal, even if it’s not a gospel, is worth taking note of and must indeed raise some key questions in India.

Did the Modi government really force Dassault to accept the Reliance Group of Anil Ambani as the “offsets” partner? Did the government sacrifice the nation’s interests by ignoring India’s own public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL)? Despite Modi’s avowed probity, did he indulge in crony capitalism? And there is the other question that Hollande hasn’t commented on: Is the price NDA government paying for each Rafale aircraft — Rs 1,670 crore or thrice more than what the Congress says UPA government had agreed on — justified?

But fairness demands that asking questions can never be a one-way process. So there must be other questions as well.

Did Dassault believe that HAL was not a worthy partner, as media was told when UPA was negotiating the deal? If the UPA government was “forcing” Dassault to choose HAL, did the French company need coercion by the Modi government to ignore HAL? Was the selection of Reliance Group the result of a process of talking to private partners that Dassault had begun during the UPA term? And equally importantly, is Congress peeved because Dassault refused to partner with a company linked to Robert Vadra?

Why Rafale isn’t Bofors

Modi can take little comfort from Hollande’s lack of credibility but will benefit from Rahul Gandhi’s lack of it. That’s because, even if an accuser’s own guilt can’t preclude the investigation of possible wrongdoing on the part of the accused in the eyes of the law, the people’s court is more merciful to the one facing allegations if the one who is making them is tainted. The electoral guillotine can be cruel and merciful depending on who is standing under it.

Modi can get away from the fact that the allegations of corruption in the Rafale deal are being made by Congress, a party grossly tainted with corruption. It’s difficult or too early to say that Congress has won the battle of perception in the uproar over Rafale and has exposed Modi as corrupt. Most of Modi’s supporters would find it nearly impossible to believe that he or his party made money in the Rafale deal, only because Congress is saying it.

A typical Modi supporter dumped Congress in 2014 because of at least one or all of these three reasons: Congress appeased minorities, Congress made a mess of the economy and was an embodiment of corruption. They saw hope in Modi. And if that hope has diminished somewhat, it’s not because they perceive him to be corrupt; it’s because he has fallen short of expectations of both Hindutva elements and has dashed the hopes of those who expected him to deliver better governance than he did.

Comparisons between Bofors and Rafale by Modi-baiters stretch the boundaries of creative imagination and wishful thinking. To begin with, when VP Singh fished out a piece of paper from his pocket at a rally in Lucknow in 1988, claiming it had on it the names of people who received money in the Bofors scam, he enjoyed credibility among people. Investigations by journalist Chitra Subramaniam unearthed documents that exposed the existence of both middleman Ottavio Quattrocchi close to the Gandhi family as well as the money trail in the Bofors deal. The guilt of Rajiv Gandhi, the then prime minister, was never conclusively established, but he lost the battle of perception — and the election a year later — because there were enough credible pointers to prove that money changed hands.

In the case of Rafale, there is neither clinching evidence — at least not as yet — nor enough pointers to expose Modi. There are only questions that need investigation. As The Guardian once said, Sarkozy used Rafale sale as an “electoral lifeline” to win his election in 2012. He lost. Rahul Gandhi is desperately clutching at the same straws to win in 2019, by parroting the words of a politician as unreliable as himself: Hollande.

Author tweets @sprasadindia

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Updated Date: Sep 29, 2018 19:33:24 IST