Rafale row: Nirmala Sitharaman’s visit to France, spate of media interviews indicate govt’s resolve to win battle of perception

Two developments have again stirred the Rafale pot (not that it needed any stirring). In hearing a batch of petitions on the fighter jet contract, the Supreme Court on Wednesday refused to issue a notice to the Centre but has asked the government to provide all details of the decision-making process in a sealed envelope by 29 October and fixed the next date of hearing on 31 October. The apex court, however, has clarified that it does not want any information from the Centre on pricing and technical details.

File image of defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman. PTI

File image of Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. PTI

In the day’s second development, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman has left for France on a three-day trip where among other things, she will take stock of the progress in the supply of 36 Rafale jets by Dassault Aviation to the Indian Air Force under a Rs 58,000-crore deal.

The twin developments point to a fight of competing narratives. The Opposition seems desperate to stall the deal alleging wrongdoing, the government seems bent on marching forward in stoic determination. The narrative conflict is now reaching a decisive stage. The Rafale deal is no longer a defence acquisition. It is a full-blown political war that could soon spill over into the judicial domain. Politicisation of any issue has an inevitable fallout. The battle becomes one of perception.

Despite his shrill rhetoric, Twitter quips and dramatics Congress president Rahul Gandhi has so far failed to convince even own allies that he has a case on Rafale. However, his determination to make the fighter jet one of his key election planks, the still-considerable clout of Congress ecosystem and a little bit of help from a former French president have contributed towards creating a situation where the government can no longer avoid a debate on the issue citing national security.

Rahul may have been unsuccessful in providing any proof of malfeasance in the deal except levelling rather wild allegations, but nevertheless, he has been successful in painting the deal as “controversial”. If the dominant narrative identifies the deal as ‘controversial’ instead of ‘clean’, that is half the battle won. The median of the debate is tilted already. Despite the fact that not an iota of evidence has so far come to light that may point towards any ‘scam’, the onus has shifted to the government to prove that its contract was clean, not ‘controversial’.

Truth, facts or data are not necessarily redundant in a perception battle, but these are not the determinants in the eventual outcome. Despite their claims to rationality, human decisions are not always based on sound, impartial assessment of options. It is evident even more so in politics where decisions align more with political preferences and confirmation bias. A perception battle may be won not on the strength of facts and data alone but also on the ability of a side to weave a story that connects and convinces people.

For instance, with Assembly elections around the corner and a few months to go for the Lok Sabha polls, the Congress has deliberately stepped up the attack on NDA’s Rafale. Rahul reckons that whether or not the deal is free of cronyism is unimportant. What matters is whether the voters think so. If he is able to convince the electorate that Rafale contract is mired in cronyism and corruption, his job is done.

To get their point across, political parties and leaders use all sorts of signals and symbolism. The Congress has stepped up its game on social media. Rahul wastes no opportunity in taking potshots at the prime minister over Rafale. In seminars abroad, news conferences or elections rallies, the Congress president has made the purported “scam” a single-point agenda against Modi. His often-colorful accusations are not backed by proof but made from a conviction that relentless muck-racking will eventually be enough to penetrate Modi’s shield of incorruptibility and reflect in the ballot box.

The NDA tried to initially sidestep the debate but realised quickly that the strategy is counterproductive. In a change of stance, the government now says that it is ready to fight the perception battle by “aggressively countering Congress propaganda” and should there be a need, senior leaders such as defence minister Sitharaman “will tour India to send the message across”.

Sitharaman’s visit to France amid the huge political row is aimed at reinforcing the perception that the government has nothing to be defensive about on this issue since the government-to-government deal involves no middlemen, there has been no deviation from due process and no cronyism in Dassault Aviation’s choice of Indian offset partners. Therefore, it is business as usual as far as the government is concerned.

While a report by news agency PTI says the Indian defence minister may “take stock” of Rafale’s progress in delivering the two squadron of fighter aircraft (slated to arrive in India from 2019), Sitharaman told CNN-News18 in an interview that she may pay a visit to the plant during her trip. The minister also indicated during an interview with Economic Times newspaper that she and her delegation (comprising representatives from the defence ministry, army, navy and air force) may visit a few French air force and naval bases to tighten the defence partnership between two nations.

The defence minister is also slated to meet her counterpart Florence Parly on “ways to expand Indo-French maritime security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region,” according to the PTI report.

All these are part of the due process, but also calibrated to send an impression that India-France partnership will not fall prey to political opposition and Rafale deal shall not be grounded. It is worth pointing out here that while the row over Rafale in India was at its peak, three Rafale fighter jets arrived in India on a training mission and left the Gwalior airbase after spending three low-key days in the country. The three jets, that flew joint sorties with IAF Mirage 2000 pilots, were part of “France’s Mission PEGASE, a force projection mission that involved stop-overs in Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore”, according to a report in Livefist.

Though the event was downplayed by the government and IAF, the very fact that the jets flew in and out of India at the height of controversy points to resolve in the government that political brinkmanship won’t be allowed to shoot down the deal.

Additionally, the defence minister appeared for a spate of media interviews where she took all questions on Rafale and sought to sort the wheat from the chaff. She told The Hindu that the government followed all due process on the contract, did not scale down the deal and welcomed CAG’s audit.

Rafale is vital to national security. It will boost IAF’s squadron strength and enhance technical capabilities. The deal is also central to and vital for India-France defence partnership, given the fact that Paris had stood firm beside India in the aftermath of Pokhran-II nuclear tests.

In his piece for The Tribune, KP Nayar writes how Modi’s foreign policy intervention was vital in striking the deal, and Modi’s decision, in turn, was influenced by the fact “if India now has a respected presence at the Group of Twenty summits, it is originally owed to the French who broke new ground in 2003 by inviting Atal Bihari Vajpayee to the G-8 summit in Évian-les-Bains. This invitation was the seed which germinated as today’s G-20.”

Rafale, among other things, is also the embodiment of Indo-French cooperation and the government must not let it be grounded. It must stand rock solid amid all muck-racking.


Updated Date: Oct 10, 2018 21:22 PM

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