Rafale deal may become waterloo of Modi Sarkar

By K R Sudhaman. Dated: 9/5/2018 10:45:52 PM

If Bofors led to downfall of congress government led by late Rajiv Gandhi in 1989, the Rafale controversy has the potential to become waterloo for BJP government led by Narendra Modi. Coincidentally Modi government is the first single party majority government after Rajiv Gandhi's in 30 years in India.
Kickbacks in defence deals are common all over the World. In India there have been allegations of kickbacks and corruption in defence deals right from the Jaguar fighter aircraft deal during Janata government in the late 1970s to bofors, Augusta Westland helicopters and to now Rafale. But so far there has not been a final indictment on any of the kickbacks in defence deals. But corruption in defence deals has always become major election issue in India. Ruling party has always been a victim of such scandals in the past. The Rafale deal, though yet to become a full-blown scandal, has the potential to pull down to Modi government in 2019 elections, if the congress and other opposition parties articulate its expose well as BJP did on 2G and coal Scam or VP Singh's Janata Dal on Bofors.
Of late, Modi government is working overtime to diffuse the Rafale controversy. But there are doubts already if it can prevent Rafale becoming a major election plank in 2019. At the moment Congress and other opposition parties appears to be fully geared to mount pressure on the government to come clean on the controversy. Congress has already dubbed it as Rafale scam.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi has demanded a Joint Parliamentary Probe to unravel the truth. A JPC was set up on Bofors and it white washed the issue completely. Nothing comes out of JPCs as it is generally headed by the ruling party member. This meant JPC reports are wishy-washy. But what is important is CAG report on Rafale deal will be out by this year end. This is expected to provide enough ammunitions for the opposition on parties on Rafale ahead of the elections as was the case in 2G and Coal scams before 2014 elections, Susequently, A Raja of DMK, then telecom minister, was acquitted by court. However, the scam had done enough demange to UPA particularly congress and DMK.
To put the Rafale issue in perspective, the UPA government originally chose Rafale fighter jets in 2012 over rival offers from US, Europe and Russia to upgrade India's ageing fleet. The plan was that India would buy 18 off the self jets from France's Dassault Aviation with 108 others to be assembled in India by the state run Hindustan Aeronautics in Bengaluru. In 2015, this plan was changed by Prime Minister Modi, who announced that 36 Rafale ready to fly fighter jets instead will be bought off-the shelf at nearly three time higher price.
This sudden change in the deal that too during Modi's visit to France gave congress enough fodder to accuse the ruling BJP of non-transparency in the multi-billion dollar deal and claimed this is one of the biggest failures of the make in India prrogramme
The Congress leaders have claimed that their deal cost less than the one struck by the Modi government. According to congress India would have got 126 aircraft by paying just Rs 21,000 crore more than Rs 58,000 crore, Modi has agreed to pay for 36 aircraft.
Five other contenders - Boeing's Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin's F-16IN Super Viper, RAC MiG's MiG-35, Saab's Gripen C, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Rafale - were examined before zeroeing in on Rafale by UPA in 2007. The twin-engine Rafale combat jet is designed from the beginning as a multi-role fighter for air-to-air and air-to-ground attack is nuclear-capable and its on-board Electronic Warfare (EW) systems can also perform reconnaissance and radar jamming roles.
Nearly one- and-half years after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced deal in September 2016, the war of words have begun over the deal in which so far no clarity has emerged on what exactly had happened. Along with the Rafale deal, an accompanying offset clause was sealed through which France will invest 30 per cent of the 7.8 billion Euros in India's military aeronautics-related research programmes and 20 per cent into local production of Rafale components.
Congress has accused the government of causing insurmountable loss of taxpayers' money by signing the deal worth Rs. 58,000 crore. It also alleged that the Anil Ambani led Reliance Defence Limited had been unfairly picked to be the French firm's Indian partner as it did not have the expertise when compared to HAL. The claims were rebutted by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Anil Ambani-led Reliance Defence Limited with the government saying that the renegotiated deal was transparent and better than the deal negotiated by the previous UPA government as it includes a superior weapons package and logistical support, which had been absent in the previous one. Reliance Defence had also said that its subsidiary Reliance Aerostructure and Dassault Aviation formed a joint venture - Dassault Reliance Aerospace, after a bilateral agreement between two private companies and the Indian government had no role to play in this.
Nirmala Sitharaman told the Parliament earlier that the details of the deal with France for the Rafale fighter jets cannot be disclosed as per the inter-governmental agreement as it is classified information. Officials say that due to national security reasons, there is a confidentiality clause in the Rafale deal which bars the buyer and seller from talking about the pricing, making it impossible for any government to reveal any detail about the defence deals.
Congress however maintained that there was no transparency in the deal, which hides more that what it reveals. Countering this, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley accused the congress party of seriously compromising country's security by seeking details of weaponry purchased along with the aircraft. He also advised Congress chief Rahul Gandhi to learn from former Defence Minister Pranab Mukherjee lessons on national security.
Claims and counterclaims apart, it has now become clear there appeared to be fishy as the charges leveled against each other getting intensified day by day for over a month now. More mudslinging is expected as the elections approached coming months forcing Modi government to go on back foot. Political pundits argue that one reason that BJP is increasingly resorting polarization politics to divert attention from Rafale controversy with congress stepping up the attack unabatedly.
But one thing is clear Modi government came to power on one major election plank that is to root out corruption. It can no longer claim the moral high ground with Rafale controversy surfacing. As long as there is not electoral reforms, corruption cannot be rooted out from the system. Till election funding becomes transparent, corruption will continue to be a major problem and no political party can claim to be above board. On one thing all political parties are united - that is not to carry out big ticket overhaul of the electoral system in India, which breads corruption. Anyway Modi government has provided on a platter, an issue for opposition parties in the election by way of Rafale controversy.
*(K R Sudhaman, a senior journalist, who was formerly Editor of Press Trust of India and Economic Affairs Editor TickerNews and Financial Chronicle)
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