A BIG DEAL
There is a good six months before the first Rafale lands on Indian soil, but more and more accusations are flying thick and fast over the seemingly never-ending controversy around the Indo-French fighter jet deal as the nation gets set for a stormy election season.
A few recent events such as rising India-Pakistan tensions after Pulwama bombing and Balakot surgical strike, and a possible reopening of the Rafale case in which the Supreme Court had on December 14 given a clean chit to the Modi government, among some other equally significant developments, have given a new tone and turn to the defence deal controversy this month.
On March 4, while addressing a rally during a two-day visit to his home state of Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi asserted that the defence situation in the nation would have been much better if the Indian Air Force had Rafale fighter jets.
"Not one this side would have gone and no one on the other would have survived," he said.
In a hardly veiled attack on the Congress-led Opposition, Modi said: "If the Indian Air Force had the Rafale today, the situation would have been different, but some people do not have it in them to understand this," Modi said, adding "When I say this, they question the Air Force strikes."
Urging his audience to trust the defence forces, the Prime Minister said the nation must “believe in” and “be proud of” its armed forces “without raising questions”.
Responding promptly to these remarks, the Congress questioned the BJP's claims of 250 causalities in the air strikes on a Jaish-e-Mohammed militant camp in Pakistan and demanded that Prime Minister Modi apologise for claiming the IAF felt the absence of Rafale fighter jets.
Countering Modi's allegations that the opposition was politicising the Rafale issue at the cost of national security, Congress spokesperson R.P.N. Singh accused the BJP of trying to reap electoral gains from the recent air strikes.
Pointing out that the government was yet to give an official count of the number of terrorists killed in Balakot air strikes and that Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa had himself declined to comment on the casualties, Singh also challenged BJP chief Amit Shah's claim of 250 terrorists being killed in the air strikes conducted in the aftermath of the February 14 Pulwama terror attack in which 40 security personnel were killed.
"The Prime Minister tried to show that the IAF was weaker because it did not have the Rafale. He should apologise for questioning the capabilities of the IAF and for playing politics on armed forces," Singh told the media.
"We have witnessed how BJP leaders, including Shah and Modi, made many political statements on the Pulwama attack and yet accused Congress of doing it. We have a BJP leader (Manoj Tiwari) roaming around in Army fatigues, so who is politicising the issue? It is the BJP?" said Singh and questioned Shah's claims on the casualties in the air strikes.
Amid this political football between the BJP and Congress, the Supreme Court was considering a few review petitions seeking a recall of its December 14 judgment that had dismissed the original petitions seeking a court-monitored probe into the purchase of the jet fighters. The apex court had ruled that the government’s decision-making process was not in doubt and that the bench need not delve into details about pricing and the choice of offset partners.
The review-and-recall pleas, as well as the original ones, had been filed by former Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha, journalist-turned-politician Arun Shourie, activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan and others.
March 6 saw the Rafale case take a curious turn when the Centre told the Supreme Court that documents related to Rafale deal that had appeared in the media and were cited by those seeking a recall of the December 14 ruling were confidential papers stolen from the Defence Ministry.
Referring to the eight-page dissent note by the three members of India Negotiating Team (INT), Attorney General K.K. Venugopal told a bench of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice K.M. Joseph that it was being probed if the documents were stolen by former or present employees.
The Attorney General referred to an article in The Hindu by its former Editor N. Ram related to the note by the three members of INT. The AG took exception to the newspaper publishing a report on February 8 – just prior to the hearing of the Rafale plea by the top court.
"The strategy is that before the hearing of the sensitive case there are newspaper articles to influence the hearing," Venugopal said, and described it as contempt of court.
At this, CJI Gogoi wanted to know that if what had been published in two write-ups were based on "unauthorized" documents, what action the government had taken in the first instance when the story appeared on February 8.
The court asked the AG to apprise it of the steps taken vis-a-vis the documents allegedly stolen from the Defence Ministry.
As the Attorney General sought that the both the review petitions and the application for perjury proceedings against the officials who misled the court and suppressed material information from it be dismissed at the outset, the court said that let Prashant Bhushan say what he wants and the court will decide what part of it to be accepted.
Venugopal also faced some serious questions from the bench as he contended that since the documents being relied upon for seeking a review of the December 14 judgment were "stolen" and thus could not be entertained by the court.
He hammered the point that unless the sources of the document was bonafide, known or lawful, the court could not look into it.
Disagreeing, Justice Joseph said: "The issue is that the law of the country has been violated. There is allegation of corruption. Can you seek shelter citing national security?"
As the Attorney General said that the court can look into it provided the source of information is disclosed, Justice Joseph, apparently disagreeing, said: "You are saying that it can't be looked into as it is illegally sourced. Even a stolen document can be looked into if it is relevant to the case.
"You can't have a general proposition" that a court is barred from looking into a tainted or stolen document, Justice Joseph added.
Referring to the Official Secret Act, the Attorney General persisted that the source of the document had to be disclosed, but his suggestion was brushed aside by CGI Gogoi.
Soon, N. Ram, Chairman of The Hindu Group of Publications, also responded on the issue, saying the documents pertaining to the purchase of Rafale fighter jets based on which articles were published in The Hindu were not stolen and the sources which provided them would not be revealed under any circumstances.
Contrasting the days when he wrote extensively on the kickbacks paid in the Bofors gun deal, Ram said no threats were then made to him or to The Hindu like invoking the Official Secrets Act as it was being done by the Modi government.
Ram said the information was published in public interest as part of investigative journalism as it was suppressed despite repeated demands made inside and outside Parliament. According to him, the government saying the documents were stolen authenticated their genuineness.
Ram said there was protection available under Article 19 (1) A of the Constitution, the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression as also under Sections 8(1) (i) and 8(2) of the Right to Information Act that overrides the Official Secrets Act.
All this exposed the BJP to more serious criticism and attacks from the Opposition.
The Congress called for a case of corruption against the Prime Minister for "duping" India.
Citing a report of the Indian Negotiation Team (INT), the Congress alleged Modi enriched Rafale maker Dassault Aviation at the cost of the Indian exchequer by waiving the bank guarantee and claimed that the price of the jets under the new deal was far higher than that negotiated during the previous UPA regime.
Addressing the media in the national capital, Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala also claimed that the deal to buy 36 Rafale jets, including its price, was finalised by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval without any authority to do so.
"The corruption and maleficence in the Rafale deal is out in open. Modi misused his office to give benefit to Dassault Aviation and consequently caused loss to public exchequer. Modi did away with bank guarantee, despite the written opposition of the Law Ministry, the Finance Ministry and the Defence Ministry," Surjewala said.
"According to the INT, the price of the 36 jets under the new deal is Rs 63,450 crore and not Rs 59,175 crore, as has been claimed by various BJP ministers and the government.
"Moreover, considering the fact that the jets will be delivered in 10 years and taking into account an inflation rate of 1.22 per cent, the price of the jets will go beyond to Rs 67,500 crore," he said.
Questioning Doval's authority to negotiate and finalise the deal, the Congress alleged "blatant and massive corruption" in the Rafale acquisition.
"This is a clear-cut case under Section 13 (1) (d) of the Prevention of Corruption Act and different provisions of Indian Penal Code. Time has now come to register an FIR against PM Modi and every other individual," the Congress spokesperson added.
Elsewhere, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee thundered: "It is a matter of shame. We haven't seen anything like this before. If documents can get stolen from an important Central government department, then don't you guys think that the nation is in deep trouble?" Banerjee said at the state secretariat Nabanna.
"It is a very serious matter and I think there must be an investigation," she said.
"What sort of nuisance is going on in the country, that documents are being stolen from the Defence Ministry?" Banerjee tweeted.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi stated that any enquiry into the "missing" Rafale files should begin with Goa Chief Minister and former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar.
Addressing a meeting of the party's booth committee workers, Gandhi also said that like the missing Rafale files, the Goa government, headed by the ailing Parrikar, was also missing.
"You want to start an enquiry, then start the enquiry with Parrikar. Parrikar said clearly in the cabinet, it is taped, that Rafale files are with me and Narendra Modi cannot remove me as Goa Chief Minister because the day he does that, I will bring out the Rafale files in the open," Gandhi said.
Three days later, the Attorney General did an about-turn and said he had never told the Supreme Court that Rafale file/documents were stolen, but had only said that the photocopies of the same were unauthorisedly taken away.
Sources close to the Attorney General sought to clarify that he had never said that the Rafale documents that were published in a section of the media and used by the petitioners were "stolen." All that he had told the court was that these documents were unauthorisedly photocopied, sources added.
Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in her tweet quoted Attorney General as saying that he had never said that that the Rafale documents were stolen. He had told the top court that the petitioners (Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and Prashant Bhushan) in their application used "photocopies of the original" papers, deemed by the government.
As India First went to press, the Supreme Court had set March 14 as the next date for hearing of the Rafale review peitions. The outcome of that hearing may have a significant impact on the outcome of the coming elections.