If Rafale deal was squeaky clean, why not allow JPC or CBI to launch inquiry and clear government's name?

Media revelations in connection with the Rafale deal over the past few days have sent the government reeling. On Tuesday, Congress president Rahul Gandhi called a bare-knuckled press conference to accuse Prime Minister Narendra Modi not just of corruption, but also of compromising national security.

The immediate provocation for the press conference was a report published in The Indian Express on Tuesday that showed that entrepreneur Anil Ambani had held meetings with then French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drien and three of his advisors in the fourth week of March in 2015, around a fortnight before Modi's visit to Paris to hold talks with then French president Francois Hollande. The Rafale aircraft deal was finalised and announced during this visit, although it was signed over a year later.

According to an official who had been briefed about Ambani's meeting, the report said, he had expressed the desire to work with Airbus Helicopters on both civil and defence projects. Damagingly, he was also reported as having mentioned a memorandum of understanding (MoU) 'in preparation and the intention to sign during the prime minister's visit'. This MoU is construed to be the one for the Rafale deal.

At this point of time, neither then defence minister Manohar Parrikar nor then foreign secretary S Jaishankar knew about the announcement. The latter had, in fact, on the eve of the prime minister's departure told the media that in his 'understanding', discussions were underway between the defence ministry, 'the French company', ie Dassault, and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, which, it had been envisaged, would manufacture a majority of the aircraft by means of a transfer of technology.

There were other curious aspects to Ambani's involvement. He had incorporated a company called Reliance Defence on 28 March, 2015, at around the time that he met Le Drien and his advisors. Despite the fact that Ambani's company obviously had zero experience in aircraft manufacture, or defence-related production of any kind, his newly-incorporated company got a preponderant share of the offset contracts that Dassault — the makers of the Rafale aircraft — and three other companies were contractually bound to invest 50 percent of the deal amount in India. Reliance Defence got its offset contracts, worth in their totality Rs 30,000 crore, mainly through a 51:49 joint venture with Dassault.

File image of Narendra Modi. Twitter @MEAIndia

File image of Narendra Modi. Twitter @MEAIndia

At Tuesday's press conference, Rahul said three axes constituted the Rafale deal. One was the axis of corruption, one that of procedural irregularities, and the third of national security. The Congress president was categorical: The prime minister had indulged in corrupt practice by favouring Ambani and influencing the offset contracts, but more dangerously he had compromised national security by betraying his oath of office and contravening the Official Secrets Act. That, according to him, was the only possible construal of a situation in which an industrialist had learned about a deal before it was announced and before even the defence minister knew about it. Modi, Rahul said, had opened himself up wide for criminal prosecution.

It is hard not to agree with the conclusion. If the defence minister did not know about the stage the deal had reached, it could only mean that some people in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) knew about it and had informed Ambani. It is hard to imagine that everyone in the PMO knew about it; going by the need-to-know principle, just a very small number of very senior personnel would have known. Whatever that number may have been, the responsibility for the 'leak' to Ambani rests with the prime minister.

Just before the Indian Express report was published, The Hindu had published two reports on the Rafale deal. The first, run last Friday, detailed the role of the PMO in conducting clandestine negotiations in the Rafale deal, bypassing the defence ministry and the Indian negotiating team. Thus, a raft of procedural irregularities.

The second, published on Monday, showed that the Indian government made 'unprecedented' concessions to the French side in sealing the deal. The report noted that eight changes were made to the inter-governmental agreement by the Defence Acquisition Council after it had been ratified and approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security. The most significant of these were the decisions to drop anti-corruption provisions in the agreement, usually a standard feature, by non-inclusion of penalties for the exercise of 'undue influence' and related provisions, and the decision to drop the provision for making payments through escrow accounts. All the changes were made days before the agreement was finally signed. The Hindu's report is significant for what it says about a government that (and a prime minister who) obsessively parades its credentials a crusader against corruption.

These three reports have provided enough ammunition to the Opposition and the Congress president used the firepower to strip the government of its pretensions. What is most notable about the material uncovered by the two newspapers mentioned is that none of it was made available to the Supreme Court when the Centre made its submissions while it was hearing a public-interest petition on the Rafale deal. Rahul might just have a point, therefore, when he says that the Supreme Court order exonerating the government in matters of pricing and other modalities had been rendered meaningless.

The Centre was scheduled to table the Comptroller and Auditor General's (CAG) report in the Lok Sabha on Tuesday. Rahul and other Opposition leaders have already stated that it will be seen as worthless if it doesn't include an audit of all the irregularities that have been uncovered, especially given the fact that the current CAG was the designated finance secretary between November 2014 and September 2015 and could well have a conflict of interest. At the press conference, Rahul had designated the report as that of the 'chowkidar auditor general' and, therefore, worthless.

In the interests of discretion, it would perhaps have been better to employ somewhat more measured language. Be that as it may, the public will have seen through Modi's repeated insistence that he is the honest watchman of whom the guilty are petrified. He repeated this magic incantation on Tuesday as well, in the wake of the Indian Express report. Corruption has been eradicated from the system, he declaimed. Honest people have faith in the chowkidar, but the corrupt fear him, he added for good measure. These claims have by now become tedious and the Rafale deal has served to reduce it to tatters.

Honest answers to a couple of questions could lend belated credibility to this government, which is characterised by nothing as much as it is by its opaque, authoritarian and arbitrary conduct. If the government and the Rafale deal are as squeaky clean as Modi claims they are, why not just agree to an inquiry by a joint parliamentary committee or the Central Bureau of Investigation, or both. All doubts will then be laid to rest. And another thing, why has the government failed to appoint a Lokpal yet, with its tenure almost over? We are waiting for convincing answers.

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Updated Date: Feb 12, 2019 18:26:01 IST

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