“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”
– Martin Luther King (Jr)
The mud is flying over the Rafale deal. The Rafale Jet deal has been a flashpoint between the ruling BJP and the opposition Congress, with the Congress accusing the ruling party of inflating the price of Rafale jets well beyond what they actually cost. While the Congress president Rahul Gandhi and his senior party colleagues remain fixated on the mysterious Rafale Deal and embroiled in accusatory battles with BJP, the ruling party fights back furiously as if it sees a nemesis in that deal for the Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019. Senior Congress leader Anand Sharma on Sunday alleged the Rafale fighter jet deal was the “biggest defence purchase scam” of the century and said Prime Minister Narendra Modi was directly answerable. He also said the Congress would press the Comptroller and Auditor General to scrutinise the deal. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government could not finalise the contract because of various reasons widely reported then: life-cycle cost issues, Dassault’s refusal to guarantee the HAL-produced aircraft with respect to quality standards, timelines and cost. At the end of the day, Indian Air Force (IAF) is the loser in the ongoing mudslinging over Rafale deal. Nobody will dispute that the IAF needs more firepower. Currently, it has 600 combat aircraft, and 33 active squadrons against a sanctioned strength of 44. But the country faces two implacable foes, on the western and northern borders. Even the Air Force chief BS Dhanoa has defended the government’s Rafale Jet purchase deal, stating that the purchase of Rafale jets and S-400 missile systems was essential to give the Indian Armed Forces a technical edge against its neighbours, and would serve as a deterrent against armed conflict.
As more and more reports are coming out accusing Prime Minister Modi of playing a role at the selection of the Anil Ambani-led Reliance Defence as against the public sector HAL as the offset partner for the Rafale project, all focus has now shifted to the Supreme Court bench led by the Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi who will be hearing the PIL filed by one MK Dharma challenging the Rafale deal on October 10. Though the apex court did not grant interim stay on the deal during previous hearing into the PIL, the fact that the petition has been admitted for hearing and the petitioner has been allowed to submit documents, gives enough indication that the judges will go seriously into the ways involving the conclusion of the deal. Involving a private company in the Rafale contract has not been a sudden initiative. The debate on involving the private sector in defence manufacturing has been current, with policies framed and fine tuned periodically. It is recognised that while HAL has capacities that no private sector company can match, it is saturated with work and is criticised for performance shortfalls.
The circumstances under which the offset partner decision was taken at the last minute before the announcement was made by the Prime Minister on April 10, 2015 give enough indication that the decision was taken in a unilateral manner violating the long standing procedures of making such inter-government agreement. More importantly, the Opposition’s unrelenting campaign has affected India’s image, projecting it as a corruption-ridden country where no defence deal can be clean. So in all, the proceedings of the Supreme Court will be scary to the PMO and the Prime Minister apart from the BJP leadership.