As Assembly and 2019 Lok Sabha polls near, Congress sees Rafale deal controversy as weapon to block BJP's rise
The political slugfest between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Opposition party has been escalating since former French president François Hollande indicated that the Indian government pushed Dassault Aviation to partner with Reliance Defence for the Rs 58,000 crore Rafale fighter jet deal.
As election season draws nearer and political parties begin campaigning across the country, allegations and counter-allegations have been flying thick and fast between leaders. For the Congress, its latest weapons to attack the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are the corruption claims against the Narendra Modi government in the Rafale deal.
While the Congress has been consistently calling out the NDA government over its "shoddy" handling of the Rs 58,000-crore fighter jet deal since 2015, it is former French president François Hollande's recent statement over the issue that seems to have given more credibility to the party's claims. The party is hoping to translate this into electoral victory in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Mizoram, Manipur, Madhya Pradesh and in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls as well.
In the latest development in the Rafale controversy, ex-French president François Hollande's issued a statement indicating that the Indian government in 2015 pushed Dassault Aviation to partner with the Anil Ambani-owned Reliance Defence, and said the French government had no say in that regard.
Since 2014, the Congress has been losing its foothold across the country, facing successive defeats in Assembly elections in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Meghalaya etc. Even in Karnataka this year, the party managed to grab a slice of the power pie by stitching a last minute alliance with rival JD(S) and ensuring the party remained in power. With party president Rahul Gandhi attempting to create a united Opposition ahead of the 2019 General Election, the aim is to block the BJP's rise, in any way possible.
Among a host of other issues, the Rafale deal controversy is one of the best weapons the party has at the moment.
While the BJP has faced severe criticism over their intolerance of minorities and statements over love jihad, gau raksha, Hindu rashtra etc, both Modi and his Cabinet of Ministers have successfully kept themselves away from direct involvement in corruption scandals.
As much as the BJP is trying to reject allegations of corruption in the Rafale deal, the Congress party is not going to let go of Hollande's statement any time soon. Mediapart, a French language publication, quoted Hollande as saying, "It was the Indian government that proposed this service group (Reliance Defence), and Dassault who negotiated with Ambani. We had no choice, we took the interlocutor who was given to us." Asked who selected Reliance as a partner and why, Hollande replied, "We had no say in this regard."
What is the Rafale deal and why is it important to Congress?
Rafale is a French twin-engine multi-role fighter jet designed and built by Dassault Aviation. They are considered one of the most potent combat jets globally. The Indian Air Force (IAF), which requires a minimum of 42 fighter squadrons to achieve optimal capability, declined down to 34 squadrons between 2000-2012 due to obsolescence. The original proposal to buy 126 fighter aircraft was first mooted during the Atal Bihari Vajpayee's NDA government.
However, it was under then-prime minister Manmohan Singh in 2007, that India began the process to buy a fleet of 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) after the defence ministry, headed then by Congress leader AK Antony, cleared the proposal from the Indian Air Force.
The contenders for the mega deal were Lockheed Martin’s F-16s, Eurofighter Typhoon, Russia’s MiG-35, Sweden’s Gripen, Boeing’s F/A-18s and Dassault Aviation’s Rafale. After a long-drawn process, bids were opened in December 2012 and Dassault Aviation emerged as L-1 (lowest bidder).
In the original proposal, 18 planes were to be manufactured in France and 108 in India in collaboration with the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. Discussions between Dassault and the UPA began in early 2012 for 126 Rafales. The final negotiations continued till early 2014 but the deal could not go through.
After Modi became the prime minister in 2014, he visited France a year later and announced that India will purchase 36 ready-to-fly Rafale jets in a government-to-government agreement, instead of assembling a majority of the aircraft in India.
A joint statement issued on 10 April, 2015, after talks between Modi and then French president François Hollande, said they agreed to conclude an Inter-Governmental Agreement for supply of 36 Rafale jets on terms that would be better than conveyed by Dassault Aviation as part of a separate process underway.
This irked Congress as there were lengthy negotiations between the then-UPA government and Dassault on prices and transfer of technology. After Modi's announcement, questions were raised by the Opposition on how the prime minister finalised the deal without approval of the Cabinet Committee on Security.
The Congress also accused the Centre of massive irregularities in the deal, alleging that the government was procuring each aircraft at a cost of over Rs 1,670 crore as against Rs 526 crore finalised by the UPA government. The party has also demanded answers from the government on why state-run aerospace major HAL was not involved in the deal. The Congress has also sought to know price details of the aircraft and how the rate per aircraft has gone up from Rs 526 crore to Rs 1,670 crore. The government has refused to share the details, citing a secrecy clause of a 2008 pact between India and France.
Furthermore, the Congress alleged the NDA government was benefitting the Reliance Defence Limited (RDL) through the Rafale deal as the company has set up a joint venture with Dassault Aviation to execute the offset obligation for the Rs 59,000 crore deal. The party alleged that Reliance Defence was formed just 12 days before the announcement of the Rafale deal by the prime minister on 10 April, 2015. However, RDL has rejected all the charges.
India and France signed an €7.87 billion (Rs 59,000 crore approximately) deal on 23 September, 2016 for 36 Rafale jets. The delivery of the aircraft will begin from September 2019.
On 3 October, 2016, RDL and Dassault Aviation announced a joint venture in the aerospace sector and a year later, foundation stone of a manufacturing facility was laid in Mihan, Nagpur.
War of words over Rafale controversy in recent past
Over the last three years, the Congress has been actively castigating the Modi government and accusing them of corruption, and trying to further the "interests" of a few businessmen. Taking a dig at Reliance Defence and Modi, Gandhi tweeted on 16 November, 2017.
In February this year, when an Urdu daily reported that Gandhi, who met Muslim intellectuals, told them that the Congress was a party of Muslims, the BJP was quick to call the party trying to create a "partition-like situation" in the country. In response, the Congress accused BJP of "creating controversies" to avoid talking about "real issues".
"I request Nirmala Sitharamanji that you have not bothered to answer the nation about the Rs 58,000 crore Rafale deal which is the biggest scam. If you have the courage, in this Monsoon Session, please make a suo moto statement and reply to the nation about how the defence ministry has conducted the biggest scam under your nose," Congress spokesperson Sushmita Dev had said.
On 20 July, during the Monsoon Session of the Parliament, Gandhi launched a blistering attack at the Narendra Modi government in the Lok Sabha and said, "I have no hesitation in saying that... under pressure from the prime minister, Nirmala Sitharaman spoke untruth to the people."
Gandhi said he had asked the French president Emmanuel Macron about the Indian government's claim that it cannot share the price details due to a secrecy pact between India and France. The French leader told him that there was no such pact, he claimed. After his statement, France said a security agreement it concluded with India in 2008 legally binds the two countries to protect the classified information relating to operational capabilities of defence equipment. However, it did not specifically mention whether the classified information included details of the pricing, over which the Congress has made allegations.
Speaking during the no-confidence motion, Modi responded to the Opposition's allegations of irregularities in the Rafale deal and said, "I could not imagine that the truth can be crushed like this and the country can be misled in such a manner. It is unfortunate that both the countries had to issue statements on the issue."
A day later, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley hit back at Gandhi's remarks on the Rafale deal and wrote the party manufactured fake row over Rafale deal to overcome limitations of its leadership. "It has manufactured the issue of the Rafale deal. The issue is failing to cut much ice. It's a government-to-government agreement with no private group involved. It involves national security and it is the armed forces which have preferred this aircraft for its improved combat ability," he wrote.
The Congress also moved a privilege motion against Modi and Sitharaman for "misleading" Parliament. On 27 July, Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala called the multi-crore Rafale jet deal "the biggest example of crony capitalism" and alleged the Modi government "compromised national interest" by helping a private entity to the tune of crores of rupees in violation of rules.
Parliamentary proceedings were often disrupted in the Lok Sabha over demands to probe the Rafale deal, forcing multiple adjournments of the House.
In August, Opposition parties in Lok Sabha clamoured for a probe into the row, with the Congress demanding the setting up of a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to investigate it. The demand for a JPC was raised in the Lok Sabha by Congress MP KC Venugopal when he initiated the debate on the Supplementary Demand for Grants for 2018-19 and the demand for excess grants for 2015-16.
He said the House should know about the cost of the Rafale deal and alleged that there was "a major scam".
Objecting to his demand, BJP MP Nishikant Dubey urged Deputy Speaker M Thambi Durai that Venugopal should place the evidence before the House before making any "wild allegation".
Later, Trinamool Congress leader Saugata Roy also said that the Rafale deal was "one of the biggest scandals of independent India". "The country is going to lose Rs 2,500 crore due to Rafale deal," Roy said, while demanding a "full-fledged enquiry" into the fighter jet deal.
The Congress also dubbed the Rafale controversy as "Modi's Bofors" and alleged that the prime minister "dumped" Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and inducted Reliance Defence Limited as Dassault's offset partner. The Bofors scam in the 1980s had tainted the image of the Rajiv Gandhi regime.
More recently, Gandhi also attacked the Modi government over the defence deal while launching upcoming state and 2019 Lok Sabha polls. In Chhattisgarh in August, the Congress chief claimed that the price of the Rafale jets "magically" rose from Rs 540 to Rs 1,600 crore per piece. "The UPA government had readied the Rafale contract, according to which the price for each jet was approximately Rs 540 crore. The contract was ready and Modi only had to take a decision," he said.
"But, Modi goes to France and scraps the previous contract and the defence minister and other cabinet ministers do not know about it," Gandhi had said. He spoke along similar lines in Karnataka and Rajasthan as well.
To counter Gandhi's remarks, the BJP said the issue was thoroughly discussed in Parliament and no irregularities were found. ""All wrong deeds happened during the Congress rule. Both UPA-1 and UPA-2 dispensation are known for corruption. They do not want to eliminate corruption," Rajasthan BJP president Madan Lal Saini said in August.
To mock Congress, the BJP also released a video titled "Rafale deal for dummies", featuring television personality Pallavi Joshi, who attempts to explain the agreement by making comparisons with the workings of a housing society.
There were several such "Twitter wars" between the BJP and the Opposition where the former accused Gandhi of not knowing the exact cost of the Rafale jets during the UPA regime.
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