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Friday 5 June 2020

Rafale: As hearing of review petitions concludes, reserving the judgment has a political implication

The final Supreme Court verdict on Rafale cannot become a part of the election campaign for constituencies voting on 12 May

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Friday reserved its judgment on the review petitions filed against Rafale Deal on its 14 December 2018 verdict. While the Rafale issue has hogged a part of the election campaign, the final verdict of the apex court not coming so far means that, at least till the penultimate round of polling on 12 May, any decision it takes cannot become part of even a press conference of a political party — even as public meetings and rallies have stopped in constituencies that will vote next in the Lok Sabha election.

While the Congress and other opposition parties accused the government of corruption in the deal, in December, the highest court in its verdict had given a clean chit to the NDA government in the purchase of 36 fully loaded Rafale jets from French company Dassault Aviation.

In the meantime, Congress president Rahul Gandhi apologised unconditionally to the Supreme Court for attributing to it his view that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had not come across as clean in the Rafale deal whereas the court had said no such thing. Lawyer and BJP MP Meenakshi Lekhi had dragged Gandhi to the court with a case of contempt for his comment, “Supreme Court ne maana ki chowkidar chor hai. [the Supreme Court has accepted that the watchman (a reference to Prime Minister Modi) is dishonest]”

After a two-hour long hearing on Friday, the bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi reserved the court decision. Arguing his case, activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan had accused the government of concealing facts. He said that an FIR should be lodged and a criminal investigation must be initiated into the Rafale deal. Referring to the PMO’s alleged parallel negotiations, seen in a defence ministry document The Hindu had partly published while cropping out the explanation provided by the late Manohar Parrikar, Bhushan said that three members of the Indian negotiators’ team had opposed the deal. He said that this was a prima facie cognisable offence.

Attorney-General KK Venugopal told the court that the pricing of Rafale fighter aircraft was covered under Clause 10 of the inter-government agreement and it could not be discussed in the public domain. He said this was a question of national security and no court in the world would investigate the defence deals on such arguments.

The Union government, filing its reply in the Supreme Court, said in its affidavit that monitoring by the PMO was a part of the procedure for the procurement of the Rafale jets and that could not be called a parallel negotiation or interference. The Union government said that the case of the Rafale deal could not be re-opened on the basis of incomplete interim notes and media reports. To that extent, the A-G argued, the Supreme Court verdict of 14 December was correct.

On 14 December 2018, the Supreme Court had rejected all petitions seeking an investigation into the allegation of favouring an Indian company (Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence) in the selection of an offset partner for manufacturing of the aircraft in India under Dassault Aviation’s licence. Later, review petitions were filed against this verdict. While Bhushan & Co disagreed with the verdict, the government wanted the Supreme Court to revise just a small portion of the judgment that, it believed, was confusing. The government said that the portion was a result of a misreading of its submission in the court.

On 2 January, former union minister Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and lawyer Bhushan filed another review petition against the Supreme Court judgment in the case of the Rafale deal.

Now the Supreme Court has completed the process of hearing the two petitions. The apex court’s final decision on the matter may arrive before the last round of the Lok Sabha election or even later.

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