The outlines of a serious controversy involving the acquisition of Rafale fighters from France by the Narendra Modi government in 2016 has now hit the floor of Parliament, and chances are that the corruption being strongly hinted at by the Opposition Congress will linger until the next Lok Sabha polls. The Congress has long accused this government of a massive coverup and corruption in the Rafale deal, and party president Rahul Gandhi has raised it yet again. But this time it was on the floor of the Lok Sabha on Friday during his hard-hitting speech in the no-confidence motion debate.
Mr Gandhi raised two issues. He said the government was purchasing the aircraft the UPA had negotiated, but after scrapping the terms reached in the UPA period and agreeing to pay more than three times the price France’s Dassault had accepted for each aircraft earlier.
The second issue the Congress chief pointed to was that an Indian private company with no experience of aircraft manufacture was made the Indian partner by the Modi government, replacing the public sector HAL, which has been in aircraft manufacture earlier. The suggestion or allegation was that the private firm, which was in straitened financial circumstances, was a likely conduit for kickbacks.
Intervening in the discussion impromptu, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman said she couldn’t reveal price details as disclosure wasn’t permitted under a confidentiality clause signed with the French side in 2008 by the UPA (renewed by this government on March 10, 2018). Mr Gandhi at this point accused the minister of speaking an untruth. The BJP has threatened it will move a privilege motion in Parliament against the Congress president.
The Congress is unfazed. On Monday, former defence minister A.K. Antony, speaking from the Congress platform, said the confidentiality clauses affected “classified or protected information”, which meant details on the fighter jet’s performance and capability parameters, which have security implications. The secrecy aspect doesn’t cover price and cost information.
Mr Antony further said the money spent on the aircraft acquisition would anyway be subjected to audit by the CAG, whose report would come before Parliament. The question of secrecy therefore just didn’t arise. Minister of state for defence Subhash Bhambre has recently told Parliament that the CAG audit into Rafale has begun.
To defend its surprising proposition that it cannot reveal the price of Rafale fighters, India on Friday asked France, as the no-trust motion was under debate, to urgently speak on the confidentiality clause. The French government stuck to the original formulation that the confidentiality clause pertained to “security and operational capabilities”.
The Congress is now planning to move a privilege motion against both the Prime Minister and defence minister. This seems to be a fraught moment for Indian politics. A joint parliamentary committee to examine the Rafale acquisition may help cut the Gordian knot.