Rafale deal row: Opacity, rushed 'sealed cover', CAG's silence indicate Centre might be scrambling for cover

The Centre's strategy in response to repeated attacks over its re-negotiation of the Rafale aircraft deal is getting curiouser and curiouser, especially as more details about the deal enter the public domain in a thin, stuttering trickle.

First up is its 'disclosure' to the Supreme Court of the details of pricing in the re-negotiated deal. Just about a fortnight ago — on 31 October — the Centre had told the top court that these details could not be divulged, after a bench headed by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi had said not only that all details that had by then been delivered to the court in a 'sealed cover' should be made available to petitioners who had filed public-interest petitions, but also expressed its desire to be apprised of details about pricing.

On Monday, the Centre rushed the information to the court disregarding Supreme Court procedure and in a notably cloak-and-dagger style. The Ministry of Defence sent the 'sealed cover', not even allowing Attorney-General KK Venugopal access to the information. Speculation swirls around this change of heart. It has been suggested that the Centre hopes it can dispel the bad odour clinging to the deal — and consequently to the Centre — even though it is unlikely that sceptics both among the Opposition and the citizenry will take anything this government does on trust, especially given the government's unwillingness to come clean over the deal.

Rafale deal row: Opacity, rushed sealed cover, CAGs silence indicate Centre might be scrambling for cover

File image of a Rafale fighter jet. Wikimedia Commons

There is a legitimate suspicion that the government is trying to cover its tracks. Two factors, among many, promoting this view are persuasive.

First, if all was indeed above board, the government should have had no objection in agreeing to a thorough inquiry by a joint parliamentary committee, which would have rehabilitated the deal in public perception. Second, there are the circumstances surrounding the Comptroller and Auditor General's (CAG) examination of the Rafale deal.

It has been reported that around 60 retired bureaucrats have written an open letter to the CAG criticising its 'unconscionable and unwarranted' delay in making public its report on the deal. The bureaucrats have noted that an impression is gaining ground that the CAG is deliberately delaying its report till after the Lok Sabha election next year to save the government the kind of embarrassment that could affect the electoral outcome. This delay, they have written, is in stark contrast to the prompt release of its reports on the allotment of the 2G spectrum, coal blocks and other issues, which had been widely appreciated.

There is no particular reason to be surprised, however, in view of the serial subversion of institutions, including those with constitutionally-mandated autonomous status.

Let us briefly look at some of the details of the re-negotiated Rafale deal and the government's conduct in this connection. The government has been insisting since the controversy intensified that the agreement between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and then France president Francoise Hollande had specified that pricing issues could not be made public. Subsequently, Congress president Rahul Gandhi claimed that Emmanuel Macron, the incumbent French president, had told him that there was no confidentiality clause. This was never unambiguously denied by the French government, though it issued a carefully worded statement saying it did not know why, or whether, Macron had said what he did to Rahul. Since this is hardly much of a denial, the government’s repeated statements about confidentiality might well seem to be covering for something more sinister.

But quite apart from the specifics — and there are a raft of them, including pricing, the contours of the deal, or why a deal involving 126 planes suddenly became one for 36 and why a company that had zero experience in making any kind of aircraft, leave alone sophisticated fighters, and, in fact, had been freshly incorporated, was chosen offset partner by Dassault, the makers of the Rafale craft — there is the important question of procedure.

It has now come to light convincingly that the re-negotiated deal was first approved by Modi with Hollande in April 2015. The government later claimed that 74 meetings were held before the deal was signed. That should actually read finalised because, in effect, the deal had been done before the meetings — 48 internal and 26 with the French side — had been held. The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) approved the deal only in August 2016, over a year later. It seems, thus, that the key players played no role in agreeing to the deal — the Indian Air Force (IAF), the Ministry of Defence and the Cabinet. The defence ministry conducted post-facto negotiations, the CCS approved the deal post-facto, and the agency for which the procurement of the fighter aircraft was meant in the first place, the IAF, remained out of the loop.

So, what is the standard operating procedure? Surely, it is not one in which the Prime Minister's Office has a monopoly on dealing with the larger principles of defence procurement?

This point has to be cleared, especially in view of the facts: First, the reduction in the number of imports from 126 to 36; second, that the offset contract was awarded to a company that was a greenhorn in the area; and, third, that there are immensely credible suspicions that there was an exponential hike in the acquisition price.

The failure of the government to come clean, its reliance on clarifications from the beneficiary of the deal — Dassault — which has issued statements on its own unrestricted role in picking a partner, which are far from convincing given its stake in the deal and its vulnerability to pressure from the Indian government, the hesitant and reluctant release of any credible facts to the public, witness the refusal to agree to a credible inquiry, whether through a JPC or one conducted by the Central Bureau of Investigation, and the inexplicable failure of the CAG to make public the facts it has been able to unearth, point to precisely the kind of opacity that makes the Modi government untrustworthy as an interlocutor.

The Modi government came to power promising an unprecedented development push, minimum government allied to maximum governance and a war on corruption. The first two have been proved to be, as things stand, not-so-clever slogans after all. The third, the anti-corruption rhetoric enjoyed some kind of credibility among the people for some time is now in tatters.

Whether Rafale will ultimately spell B-O-F-O-R-S come next year's elections to the Lok Sabha remains to be seen, but the decision to rush a sealed cover to the Supreme Court shows that the Central government is scrambling to find its footing.

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Updated Date: Nov 13, 2018 16:43:23 IST

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