By Prarthana Mitra
Reserving its verdict in the Indian government’s Rafale defence deal controversy, the Supreme Court on Wednesday sought to examine an annexed plea for a court-monitored probe into the centre’s decision-making process instead. This will help the court understand the process which allegedly culminated in the overpriced final deal with the French government in 2015.
As the court commenced its hearing, the petitioners who moved Supreme Court against the gross discrepancies in the offset deal and asked for a court-mandated probe, flagged numerous issues that allegedly amounts to criminal misconduct by high ranking government officials.
The nation deserves to know why the tender is missing
Chief petitioners Arun Shourie, Prashant Bhushan, and Yashwant Sinha asked how the NDA-BJP government could declare the agreement and then go ahead devising the modalities. Bhushan, appearing for himself and former Union Ministers Shourie and Sinha, accused the government of taking the IGA route to acquire the new number of jets, in order to avoid submitting a tender.
Why the number of jets in the deal dropped
The advocate appearing for AAP further added that the government had declared two different price quotations for the aircraft and told the Parliament in particular that the cost of the aircraft would be Rs 670 crore. Now it is 40% more for the same specifications.
The Supreme Court issued an ultimatum last month for the central government to furnish pricing details of the 36 Rafale fighter jets. The documents charting the iterations of the deal, submitted to the court in a sealed cover, do not shed light on whether approval was taken from the Defence Acquisition Council and Cabinet Committee on Security before announcing the deal. Further explanation was also required regarding the alleged immediacy of procuring 126 jets due to declining combat potential while reducing the number to just 36 jets, at the same time, within a span of three years.
Bhushan also flagged this issue, accusing the government of short-circuiting the acquisition process to procure 36 aircraft through a restricted agreement, that Rafale didn’t qualify for. He also noted the significant absence of sovereign guarantee from France in his submission to the court, further demanding to know who took the decision on the 36 jets.
Why the price is significantly higher
Press releases by Dassault and Reliance Defence show that the total price for 36 aircrafts comes to Rs 60,000 crore (Rs 1,660 crore per plane), which is more than double the price of the aircrafts under the earlier 126 aircrafts deal and almost Rs 1,000 crore higher per aircraft than the final quote furnished by the government in the Parliament on November 18, 2016.
He further questioned the government’s insistence on keeping the pricing details under wraps, and how divulging it compromises national security, especially since it was public money. Moreover, former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had once revealed the original price in a pre-deal interview. Bhushan reminded the court about the complaint made to the CBI, urging it to open an investigation into the offset contract with Dassault and Reliance Defence, both companies in serious financial difficulties. On April 10, 2015, just days after a newly-minted Reliance Defence entered the fold and HAL was booted out of the earlier agreement to manufacture the remainign jets in India.
What the government had to say in its defence
The three-member bench comprising CJI Ranjan Gogoi and Justices SK Kaul and KM Joseph, observed that a responsible member of the Indian Air Force ought to have been present, to consult on the requirement of the Rafale jets.
Attorney General KK Venuhopal representing the government, questioned in its defence, if delaying the offset contract and in turn, the procurement of the Rafale jets, was really in the country’s interest. The court, having none of this whataboutery, shut down the centre’s preposterous argument that the Kargil War would have had fewer casualties if the army had used and availed of Rafale aircraft.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.
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