Rafale deal: A twist in the tale

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  • Edward Gibbon

 Prime Minister Narendra Modi has fought many a political battles in his long career but on the eve of 2019 Lok Sabha elections, he is facing a big onslaught from the opposition parties, especially the rejuvenated Congress on the major economic issues facing the nation, mainly the poor including those living in rural areas. On the top of it the issue of controversial Rafale deal is hanging on his head as Damocles’ sword.   As a national English newspaper reported the objection raised by the Defence Ministry to the interference of Prime Minister’s Office in the Rafale negotiations, there is a new twist to the jet deal tale with Congress reiterating that Prime Minister Modi is “directly involved” in corruption. This major political controversy has erupted after the newspaper reported that the Defence Ministry had raised strong objections to “parallel discussions” conducted by the PMO during negotiations for the Rs 59,000-crore fighter jet deal between India and France. The new Rafale deal, which bore little resemblance to the original deal under prolonged negotiation, was announced in Paris by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in April 2015. This was followed by the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding between India and France when President Francois Hollande visited Delhi on the occasion of Republic Day in 2016. The inter-governmental agreement for 36 Rafale fighter jets was eventually signed on September 23, 2016.

The report, citing ministry file notes, was used by Congress president Rahul Gandhi and several other opposition leaders to raise questions on the role of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The official document that substantiates the newspaper report also highlights that the then Defence Secretary G Mohan Kumar’s handwritten notation referring to the PMO intervention which undermines their position in negotiation. However, amid the fresh controversy, Air Marshal SBP Sinha (retd), who was leading the Indian negotiating team for the fighter jet purchase, has rejected the charge that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) had held parallel negotiations. If had happened, such parallel negotiations could be termed as detrimental to India’s interests as the French side might take advantage of same by interpreting such discussions to their benefit and weakening the position taken by Indian negotiating team. Even more interestingly, the note was also signed by the Join Secretary (Air) Rajeev Verma, who was part of the Indian Negotiating Team Director General (Acquisition) Asha Ram Sihag. Verma was one of three INT members who raised objections to the deal and was later sent on leave and transferred from the Defence Ministry.

Now the big question is will this expose change anything? The report brews political debate and open censure while carrying the Rafale controversy to a new phase. This recent development has reignited the Opposition camp, who have been proactively voicing the dubious nature of the deal, to strongly assert corruption in the deal. Though the political spat will continue to prevail, the Rafale debate has travelled a great length with objections on every turn. Perhaps, the revelations could have some effect in the Supreme Court, which is still to hear a review petition against their December verdict.

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