The entire sequence of negotiations over the Dassault Rafale, including the downward revision of the price of 126 of these fighter aircraft, has been posted in the media throughout the past decade; Rahul Gandhi’s allegations excite none

When Indian National Congress president Rahul Gandhi told journalists on Tuesday that he had raised the issue of ghapla (irregularities) in India’s Rafale deal with France even during his Gujarat election campaign, the statement betrayed frustration: Why is the media not excited about the ‘corruption’ despite his efforts? It isn’t because, much as the INC may believe that public memory is short, the entire sequence of negotiations between the two countries over the contract has been in the public domain for about a decade, which includes answers to the question Gandhi is raising afresh. That India lacked an adequate number of squadrons to face a two-front war has been known for a long time; yet, no government in this period could finalise the right Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft for the Indian Air Force. Thereafter, even when Dassault Rafale beat Lockheed F-16, Boeing F/A-18 and Eurofighter Typhoon in the competition, neither the terms nor the price could be fixed between the exporter France and the procurer India. India demanded a 50% offset whereas France wouldn’t agree to more than 30%. This country had scaled up the demand because the UPA-era agreement with the European country could not be implemented. Then, as the nation could not afford to keep its defence preparedness in a state of limbo, Prime Minister Narendra Modi moved from a normal contract to a government-to-government deal, expected to encounter less red tape. France accepted the switch because it meant a faster closure of talks with client India. On its part, India extracted its pound of flesh by making Safran Aircraft Engines, the maker of Rafale’s engine Snecma M88, agree to jointly develop the Kaveri engine of Light Combat Aircraft Tejas as well. Involving this competent yet private engine maker meant that some business confidentiality had to be maintained. Discussing the cost openly would mean that other present and future customers of the company would ask for its product at the same or less price with the same or more concession of building more products without increasing the bill amount. This was why the French company added the clause of monetary secrecy. This change in the pact coincided with the phase when India’s defence minister changed from Manohar Parrikar to Nirmala Sitharaman. Hence, while the price of 126 Rafales was being openly talked about until recently, it is now hushed up. Phrased differently in bureaucratese, “(The) Provision of exact item-wise cost and other information will reveal, inter alia, details regarding the various customisations and weapons systems specially designed to augment the effectiveness and lethality of the assets, impact our military preparedness and compromise our national security.” Gandhi may still consult media archives to know how much India is paying for these essential war machines. France accepted India’s preconditions after India signed the € 7.89 billion ($ 8.9 billion) deal, while further bargaining is on for a discount of € 150,000. This keeps the country informed enough.

The other allegation that the government wanted to benefit a ‘crony’ by way of awarding a contract to Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence instead of the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited is frivolous. It belongs to the league of wild accusations Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party is more adept at hurling at his political rivals. Even better known than the negotiations for the Rafale deal is the fact that the likes of HAL and the Defence Research and Development Organisation have areas of incompetence like their failure to deliver some of the war machines to the satisfaction of soldiers and their cost and time overruns. It was to turn India’s defence equipment manufacturing dynamic that the doors were thrown open to the indigenous private sector some years ago. Ever since, Tata Advanced Systems Limited is in an agreement with Bell Helicopter; Tata Boeing Aerospace Limited has had a deal with Boeing AH-64 to co-produce fuselages of multi-role combat helicopters, Apache; Larsen & Toubro has successfully localised Samsung’s mobile howitzer, naming it K9 Vajra, etc. At the DefExpo two years ago when the Defence Procurement Procedure 2016 was released, in which Indigenously Designed, Developed and Manufactured section was introduced as a prioritised category of procurement, how come the INC found nothing to protest?

It is evident that the INC’s allegations are part of their strategy to deflect people’s attention from the resurfacing of the Bofors scandal at the Supreme Court and AgustaWestland scam surfacing in the media again. What stunned consumers of news yesterday was the pretension with which some defence correspondents lent credence to the INC’s allegation by saying they were equally surprised that the price of Rafale, rather than its technical specifications, ought to be under the wraps. Feigning naïveté, they said the aircraft’s nuclear missile carrying capability could be confidential! The truth is that the details of features of every aircraft ever made are in the public domain and India would certainly not buy an MMRCA that cannot fire missiles carrying nuclear warheads. Such irresponsible claims hurt national security interests as they make potential enemies consider India a weak force to contend with. Media houses friendly to the previous government may recall that, while the Bofors deals involved sinister kickbacks, it was a formidable Howitzer gun that proved its worth during the Kargil War. Doubting the potency of a tool of war that made its way to the country following a tough contest with strong competitors in the international market is not kosher. And after his decades in public life, mud thrown at Modi will not stick.

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