"What Is Truth"

The Rafale Riddle

Bibekananda Ray

Truth is not easy to know, or define; it is deceptive too, as an Upanishad says, "The face of Truth is hidden by a golden lid on a bowl". That does not deter us from asking while in doubt, "What is Truth". A search for Truth is often elusive confronted by many sides of an issue. Electoral mandates do not always establish Truth, as people have been misled by propaganda, e.g. Rajiv Gandhi lost in 1989 election, as people took him to be a beneficiary in 64 crore rupee Bofors scam but he was not.India's politicians value keeping up their own and the party's image within a cocoon of lies and half-truths than being absolutely truthful.

These days, Prime Minister Modi, his cohorts and the Congress President, Rahul Gandhi are having slanging matches of accusations and rebuttals; one of them was very sensational being in respect of the government's acquisition of French Rafale war-planes for the IAF and related issues. It has utterly confused the people and political observers; they wonder, what is the truth behind this haze and who is speaking it—Mr Modi, or Rahul Gandhi. This mutual mud-slinging touched a new low and meanness, when Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders even questioned the gotra (DNA) of Rahul. During a debate on Rafale in the Lok Sabha on 1st January, it lapsed into an ugly dog fight with Rahul seeking Speaker's permission to play a taped conversation on Rafale riddle but BJP members opposing it in a chorus; the Speaker, a BJP nominee, disallowed it unless Gandhi promised that it was not fake. Mr Gandhi did not do so but the BJP filed no FIR, or sued him for defamation against him either, implying it could be true.

The Rafale Riddle emerged and snowballed from a Congress party query on 25th September 2016, the day after the signing of an Inter-Government Agreement (IGA) between France and India on purchase and delivery of a fleet of war-planes. A party spokesman, Manish Tewari asked for details and whether there had been an escalation of per-aircraft price from 715 crore to 1600 crore rupees over and above the quotations of 2012.In November 2017, the party alleged that standard procurement procedures have been compromised in the agreement and saw in the presence in France of pro-BJP industrialist, Anil Ambani during Mr Modi's visit his complicity in the deal. Ever since it has been in the arena of political wrangle between the Congress and the BJP; curiously, no other party is as vocal as Congress which is demanding a JPC probe, as in the Bofors gun scam of the late 1980's.

After India's war with China in 1962 and with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971, studies were made to evaluate the needs of the Armed Forces. For the IAF it was recommended that it should have 64 squadrons including 45 of combat aircraft, to effectively meet the threat, posed by China and Pakistan. In 1970's and 1980's, when many defence acquisitions took place, the IAF had only 39½ squadrons. Combat aircrafts in its hangers were the SU-30 MKI aircraft, MiG 21 Bison and MiG 27. To enhance its operational potential, the IAF embarked on mid-life upgradation and modernisation of some of its other combat fleets, acquired later—MiG-29, Mirage 2000 and Jaguar. It was felt by the Congress government, led by Dr Manmohan Singh in 2011 that more modern and sophisticated war-planes like the French Rafale and India's Tejas by HAL should be acquired to give the IAF teeth for long-range precision attack and delivering conventional and nuclear weapons.

As of now, the IAF has only 34 combat squadrons which is likely to come down to 30 in the next three years or so, with the phasing out of older obsolete combat aircrafts.On 31st January 2012, the Congress-led UPA government's Ministry of Defence announced that Dassault Aviation of France had won the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender, under which the IAF would be equipped with 126 Rafales with an option for 63 more. The first 18 were to be supplied fully-built and 108 more would be manufactured by the HAL with technology, transferred by the Dassault. Negotiations with the French company dragged for two years as the Dassault refused to give warranty for aircrafts, to be assembled by the public sector HAL. In January 2014, the Ministry disclosed that the cost of the deal had escalated to $30 billion, i.e., $3000 crore dollars, each jet to cost $120 million, or 12 crore USD. Next month, the then Defence Minister, A K Antony said that the Ministry was re-examining the procedure of calculation of life-cycle cost and that it could not be signed in fiscal year 2013-14 for budgetary constraints. The deal could not be struck before the General Election of 2014.

The NDA-II that came to power in May 2014 inherited the stalemate. The then Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar even thought of acquiring Sukhoi Su-30MKI from Russia, if the deal remained inconclusive but the then Air Chief Arup Raha said that Su-30MKI and Rafale combat aircrafts had different capabilities and one could not replace the other. During an official visit to France in April 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced that India would acquire 36 fully-built Rafale jets (i.e., two squadrons) citing 'critical operational necessity'. In July 2015, Mr Parrikar informed the Rajya Sabha that the tender for 126 aircraft (i.e., seven squadrons) had been withdrawn by the government and negotiations for 36 aircraft had begun. In January 2016, India and France signed a MOU for acquisition of 36 aircraft and in September that year, both countries signed an IGA for acquisition of 36 aircraft at a cost of €7.87 billion. Under it, India would acquire 28 single-seat aircraft at a cost of €91.1 million each and 8 dual-seat aircraft at a cost of €94 million each. The deal also included enhancements specific to the IAF at a cost of €1.8 billion, establishment of two aircraft maintenance and overhaul facilities at a cost of €1.8 billion, a weapons package costing €710 million and a performance-based logistics agreement at a cost of €353 million. It included a 50% 'offset clause' which required the Dassault to invest 50% of the contract value back into India. Of this, 74% or Euro 2.9 billion would have to come from purchase of goods and services from India. In October 2016, Reliance Group and Dassault set up a 51:49 joint venture, named Dassault Reliance Aerospace, to manufacture components for Legacy Falcon 2000 series of jets.

Meanwhile, the previous French President, Francois Hollande during whose tenure the IGA was signed, was quoted by an investigative French journal as saying that New Delhi had asked the French government to nominate Mr Ambani's Reliance Defence as its offset partner in delivery of Rafale jets; Rahul Gandhi also claimed that Mr Hollande told him so but later ex-President denied having said this. The new French government also issued a statement to the effect that the French company had full freedom to select an Indian firm as its offset partner. Dassault also clarified that Anil Ambani's firm was Dassault Aviation's own choice, not influenced by any government or person. The Congress accused Anil Ambani of getting the offset partner status by the Dassault by unfair means, in a kind of crony capitalism. Mr Ambani denied Congress allegations and said that he was present in France as a member of Indo-French CEO forum. He also sued Congress for defamation; the case is yet to be heard.

Denying Congress charges, the new Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, who succeeded Manohar Parrikar on his being appointed Chief Minister of Goa on 3rd September 2017, said that the Cabinet Committee on Security had approved the signing of IGA and that the price of these jets could not be compared, as the tender for 126 aircraft and the agreement for 36 aircraft were different. She also observed that HAL was not considered as Dassault's offset partner, as transfer of technology to it by Dassault would not be economically feasible in a smaller contract for 36 aircraft. The Defence Ministry also reiterated that "neither government of India nor French government had any say in the commercial decision".

Two IAF Chiefs also unhappily jumped in the political fray. Former Chief, Arup Raha (1st January 2014 to 31st December 2016) said that under the NDA agreement the jets would be cheaper than in the UPA bargain and that Rafale fighters had a better maintenance and weapons package (than its rivals). He added that most of the confusion over cost was due to comparison of prices from different base years and of different deliverables and that the NDA agreement provided for training, a better performance-based logistics package and overhaul facilities etc. than in the UPA deal. The present Air Chief, B S Dhanoa who took over on 1st January 2017 also denied Congress allegations, adding that the agreement signed had better terms than the one that was being negotiated by the UPA regime. At the height of this controversy, Ms Seetharaman paid an official visit to Paris on 10th October last year, to hold wide-ranging talks with the French Defence Minister, Florence Parly explored ways to boost defence cooperation and to take stock of the progress in delivery of 36 Rafale jets by Dassault for the IAF under an Rs 58,000-crore deal but returning to Delhi she did not brief the media about her work there.

In September last year, the Supreme Court admitted a PIL, questioning Mr Modi's deal with France, filed by two former ministers in Vajpayee's BJP cabinet—Yaswant Sinha and Arun Shourie and an eminent Delhi lawyer, Prasant Bhushan. On 10th October, it heard the case and asked the government to provide in sealed cover by 29th October 2018 the details of its decision for purchase of 36 Rafale war-planes. On 14th December 2018, hearing the PIL again, a three-member bench, headed by the Chief Justice dismissed it and gave a clean chit to the Union Government on all the three counts, viz., the decision-making, pricing of the war-planes and the selection of Indian offset partner. About pricing it amazingly observed: "It is certainly not the job of this court to carry out a comparison of the pricing details in matters like the present. We say no more as the material has to be kept in a confidential domain". On the choice of the offset partner, the judges ruled: "We do not find any substantial material on record to show that this is a case of commercial favouritism to any party by the Indian government, as the option to choose the IOP (Indian Offset Partner) does not rest with (it)". It concluded by ruling that "we find no reason for any intervention by this court on the sensitive issue of purchase of 36 defence aircrafts by the Indian government; …..Perception of individuals cannot be the basis of fishing and roving enquiry by this court, especially in such matters." Expectedly, the BJP welcomed the verdict and Dassault Aviation issued a statement, welcoming it and reiterated its commitment to ensure "successful production in India through Dassault Reliance Joint Venture in Nagpur as well as through a full-fledged supply chain network".

Despite the unexpected Court verdict, Mr Gandhi repeated its charge of corruption against Mr Modi, altering a jibe against his father Galigali me shorhai, to Bharat ka chowkidar chor hai and demanded that nothing short of a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe would reveal the truth, as the Supreme Court was "not the forum to decide the issue of such a sensitive defence contract"; the government rejected both. The Congress even doubted the court's 'justification' of selection of Reliance Defence as Dassault's offset partner in India. In a news conference, Mr Gandhi further alleged that the government misled the court, as the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report was not received by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) by then, as stated in its affidavit to the court; in fact, no such report exists in the public domain, contrary to the court's observation. Expressing 'shock' and 'disappointment' on the dismissal of their petitions, the petitioners said, "some of the facts mentioned in the judgment are ….patently incorrect and …. and used as facts the statements by the government through affidavits". They demanded a "full public disclosure of all the facts" along with "a comprehensive and independent investigation into the deal".

On 15th December, the Defence Ministry admitted to the media that the Supreme Court might have misinterpreted the government's statements on the Rafale deal and filed an eight-page application for corrections. It admitted that the CAG had not yet submitted its report and the PAC had not examined it. On 16th December, the Congress asked the Supreme Court not to entertain the Government's application of rectification; it also urged it to recall the Rafale judgment as it was "self-contradictory" and to issue notices to the government for "perjury and contempt of court as it provided false information".

Baffled by the government's refusal to admit corruption, Rahul Gandhi made it clear that his charges boiled down really to only one, whether Mr Modi influenced the French government, or the Dassault, to choose Reliance Aviation as the latter's offset partner in supplying Rafale jets to the IAF and whether the French company got the price of the combat jets inflated to help Mr Ambani in a quid pro quo. Subsequently, Mr Gandhi opened a new front, whether because of the government's apathy, public sector aviation company, HAL is in dire strait with no government contract flowing to it, compelling it to borrow heavily from the market to pay the wages of its staff. Gandhi quoted a newspaper report to this effect which Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman denied. She says, HAL has signed contracts worth Rs. 26570.8 crore (between 2014 and 2018) and contracts worth Rs 73000 crore are in the pipeline. Here also the truth was elusive.

Recently, Mr Modi has opened another front against the Congress, the alleged kickbacks in purchase of Augusta Westland VVIP helicopters in Congress regime, headed by Dr Manmohan Singh. The fact is,in 2006 and 2007 kickbacks to the tune of 250 crore rupees were allegedly paid to middlemen and officials to purchase helicopters for high-level politicians and officers. It came to light in early 2013, when a parliamentary probe began into allegations of bribery and corruption, involving several senior officials and an Italian helicopter manufacturer, Augusta Westland for procuring a new fleet of 12 AW101 helicopters, priced at Rs. 3600 crore for use by the President and senior officials. It was alleged that Ahmed Patel, political secretary to the then Congress President, Sonia Gandhi, was paid the kickbacks by the firm. On 27th February 2013, Dr Singh's government brought a motion in Rajya Sabha for investigation by a 30-member JPC, which was passed, despite a walkout by many of the opposition parties including the BJP, which alleged that such a probe would be an "exercise in futility". The government denied all allegations and in 2014 cancelled the Rs 3,600 crore contract. It was frozen in February 2013 after allegations surfaced that a hefty amount was paid as a bribe. The case is still under investigation by the CBI. Why should a company pay kickbacks when its deal had been cancelled?

From this brief history of the Rafale deal, it is indeed difficult to get at the truth. The people who have been watching this acrimonious duel for over a year deserve to know the truth. Mr Modi also owes it the nation to clear the air, as the national exchequer has been allegedly defrauded of a hefty sum of Rs 3000 crore to benefit a bankrupt BJP ally, owning an unworthy firm, allegedly for quid pro quo. These are:
1.  Why is Manohar Parrikar, the then Defence Minister who must be knowing about the deal is virtually silent on the issue?
2.  In spite of advanced cancer, why has he not been relieved from the post of Chief Minister of Goa? Is he blackmailing Mr Modi, as Mr Gandhi alleges? If he is removed, will he spill the beans of Rafale deal?
3.  If 126 Rafale jets (seven squadrons) were needed in 2012, why was the IAF's requirement scaled down to only 36, i.e., two squadrons in 2016?
4.  How could such a premier war-plane manufacturer as the Dassault choose a new and green-horn company as Reliance Aviation to be its 'offset partner' unless to please a political entity? Was it not a kind of kickback?
5.  Has any test flight of Rafale combat aircraft been carried out by the IAF pilots?
6.  Has the Dassault paid any money to Mr Ambani for tasks as its offset psartner?
7.  Rajiv Gandhi, accused by the Opposition of getting kickbacks from A B Bofors denied it in Parliament; if he is innocent, why can't Mr Modi do the same?
8.  If the first batch of Rafale planes will not be delivered to the IAF before November, this year and the last not before 2022, how will the IAF successfully guard the country's air space, if a war with a neighbour breaks out, meanwhile?
9.  Why did law minister, R S Prasad signal veteran (Marga Darshak) BJP leader, L K Advani not to speak in the Lok Sabha at the end of the debate on 1st January'19? What did Mr Advani want to say?
10.        Why can't Mr Modi face Mr Gandhi in a 20-minute debate on his charges and agree to the setting up of a JPC when the BJP has more than two-thirds majority in the Lok Sabha? What does he fear?

The Bofors scam, involving an alleged kickback of only 64 crore rupees contributed to the fall of Rajiv Gandhi government in 1989. If Rahul Gandhi's charge against Mr Modi that he indeed made the French government and/or Dassaiult Aviation choose his friend Mr Ambani's inexperienced aviation firm as offset partner is proved before the 2019 General Election in April-May, Rafale scam can repeat history howsoever the Defence Minister may scream about its contrary potential to return Mr Modi to power in May.

[The writer, formerly of Indian Information Service, was Editor-in-Chief of Sainik Samachar, published by Ministry of Defence (1983-88)

Vol. 51, No.33, Feb 17 - 23, 2019