Rafale deal: Answer, don’t abuse

There are more and more questions about the purchase of the Rafale aircraft for the Indian Air Force, and the government, which should give the answers, is only giving rise to more suspicion with its responses. There are some aspects of the deal that call for better explanations. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on a visit to France in April 2015, suddenly announced the purchase of 36 aircraft from Dassault Aviation, while the deal that was being pursued until then was for buying 18 aircraft off-the-shelf from Dassault and to produce 108 more in India at Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL). Modi’s decision did not have prior clearance from the Cabinet Committee on Security and may have violated defence procurement norms. The price of the aircraft was suddenly increased. The government has refused to disclose the price per aircraft but it is seen as being nearly thrice the ballpark figure the UPA government was negotiating around. Arguments that a secrecy clause in the deal forbid disclosure of the price and that such disclosure would compromise national security are not convincing. 

Another controversial aspect is the choice of offsets partner. The choice of Anil Ambani-owned Reliance Defence, incorporated just days before Modi’s visit to Paris and which had no experience in aerospace manufacturing cannot be easily explained. The government said that Dassault chose the partner on its own. But the bottom has been knocked off that claim by former French president Francois Hollande’s revelation that India thrust the Anil Ambani firm on the French. Denials that came later from the French and Indian governments and from Dassault are unconvincing. The unanswered questions have strengthened the charges made by opposition parties, especially the Congress and its leader Rahul Gandhi, about irregularities in the deal. 

There are several circumstances that arouse suspicion of wrongdoing in the deal — the short-circuiting of procedures by Modi, the refusal to disclose the price per aircraft, the choice of Ambani’s firm as a partner, the links between another Ambani firm and Hollande’s partner, etc. But, instead of explaining matters, government leaders are ludicrously calling those who raise these questions friends of China and Pakistan. That is not how the government of the day, union ministers and ruling party spokespersons should respond. The questions raised must be answered to the satisfaction of the nation. The questions are not about the Rafale fighter, it is about the terms of the deal. The prime minister, who made the decisions, cannot claim to be exempt from scrutiny and is as accountable as anybody else. Modi is not India, and criticism and questioning of his actions is not an attack on the country. 

 

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Rafale deal: Answer, don’t abuse

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