The Narendra Modi government on Friday got a major relief as the Supreme Court dismissed a batch of PILs for a probe into the April 2016 deal to buy Rafale fighter jets.
The deal has led the main Opposition Congress party to attack the Union government for not disclosing the price, reducing the number of aircraft from 126 to 36 and favouring Anil Ambani's company.
Dealing with all the three issues, the top court rejected the charges of irregularities in the decision-making process and favouritism in selecting Anil Ambani's company as an offset partner. It also took note of the government's assertion on pricing as "there are certain better terms with regard to maintenance and weapon package."
A bench of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and K M Joseph said in a subject of defence contracts, a constricted power of judicial review has to be applied.
The 29-page judgement was authored by CJI Gogoi on behalf of himself and the bench.
A batch of petitions was filed separately by advocates Manohar Lal Sharma and Vineet Dhanda and AAP MP Sanjay Singh and another one jointly by former Union Ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie and advocate Prashant Bhushan. Their prayers ranged from quashing the deal to an independent probe.
In its conclusion, the bench said, "We find no reason for any intervention by this court on the sensitive issue of purchase of 36 defence aircrafts by the Indian Government. Perception of individuals cannot be the basis of a fishing and roving enquiry by this court, especially in such matters."
Having studied the material carefully and interacting with senior Air Force Officers, the bench said, "We are satisfied that there is no occasion to really doubt the process, and even if minor deviations have occurred, that would not result in either setting aside the contractor requiring a detailed scrutiny by the court."
The court said adequate military strength and capability to discourage and withstand external aggression and to protect the sovereignty and integrity of India, undoubtedly, is a matter of utmost concern for the Nation. The empowerment of defence forces with adequate technology and material support is, therefore, a matter of vital importance.
With regard to the charge of forcing Dassault Aviation to make Anil Ambani's company as offset partner, the bench said, " We do not find any substantial material on record to show that this is a case of commercial favouritism to any party by the Indian Government, as the option to choose the IOP does not rest with the Indian government."
The court said the commercial arrangement itself does not assign any role to the Indian government, at this stage, with respect to the engagement of the IOP. "Such matter is seemingly left to the commercial decision of Dassault," the bench said.
It noted that Reliance Aerostructure Ltd, has come into being in the recent past, but the press release suggests that there was possibly an arrangement between the parent Reliance company and Dassault starting from the year 2012.
"Joint venture is stated to have come into being between Reliance Defence and Dassault in February 2017, which is stated to be a ‘purely commercial arrangement’ between the two private
companies. Media reports of February 2012 are stated to suggest that Dassault, within two weeks of being declared the lowest bidder for procurement of 126 aircrafts by the previous government, had entered into a pact for partnership with Reliance Industries (Another business group) in the defence sector," the court said.
The court also pointed out that the process was concluded for 36 Rafale fighter jet aircrafts on September 23, 2016.
"Nothing was called into question, then. It is only taking advantage of the statement by ex-President of France Francois Hollande that these set of petitions have been filed, not only qua the aspect which formed the statement, that is, the issue of IOPs but also with respect to the entire decision making process and pricing," the bench said.