By Prarthana Mitra
The Supreme Court on Wednesday issued an ultimatum for the central government to furnish pricing details of the 36 Rafale fighter jets bought as part of the defence deal with the French government in 2015. The BJP-NDA alliance at the centra has 10 days to produce the final price of the deal, to the court as well as to the petitioners.
Who kicked the hornet’s nest?
After several members of the opposition raised doubts regarding the overpriced nature of the final deal, as compared to the original deal summarily agreed upon when the UPA government was in power, two former union ministers and an activist lawyer filed a PIL against alleged “criminal misconduct” by high ranking government officials.
Taking cognisance of their complaint, the top court responded to Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and Prashant Bhushan, saying that it would like “to be apprised of the details with regard to pricing and cost particularly the advantages thereof, if any, which again will be submitted to the court in a sealed cover”.
What has the top court coaxed out of the govt so far?
At the last hearing, the bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi demanded to know the steps taken in the decision-making process leading to the deal, in the absence of a CBI probe into the multiple iterations of the deal, although a request for one had been made. In fact, recently exiled CBI chief Alok Verma was preparing to investigate the claims before the row with deputy Rakesh Asthana (also on leave) began.
The government’s top law officer KK Venugopal had pointed out at the time that it would not be possible for the centre to hand over the details of the deal to the court, when the same had not been disclosed to the Parliament. The NDA government has maintained for the longest time, that a dubious secrecy clause prevents them from revealing the price of the jets as per the final deal.
After petitions were moved by lawyers Vineet Dhanda and ML Sharma and Aam Aadmi Party’s Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Singh, the three-judge bench comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, justice SK Kaul and justice K M Joseph on Wednesday said the report they eventually received from the centre ought to be shared with the petitioners, barring the confidential details.
“We are of the view that the information conveyed upon in the report, which can be legitimately be brought into the public domain be made available to the lead counsel of the petitioners in all cases,” it declared.
The Rafale deal and its many iterations
Based on a detailed requisition by the Indian Air Force, the UPA government in 2007 issued a request for proposal (RFP) for 126 Rafale jets, inclusive of all costs from initial purchase to transfer of technology and licensed production.
Of the six bidders, Dassault Aviation (the lowest bidder) began negotiations with the Indian Government in 2012. Till then, the Rs. 42,000 crore deal envisaged that the first 18 aircraft would be procured in a “fly-away condition” and the remaining 108 fighters would be manufactured in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL).
On April 10, 2015, just days after a newly-minted Reliance Defence entered the fold and HAL was booted out of the agreement, the BJP government signed off on a completely new deal, according to which, 36 Rafale jets were to be purchased. India and France then signed a Rs 59,000 crore deal in September 2016 for only 36 Rafale jets.
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.
According to The Wire, Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence is to hold 51% of the equity with 70% of the offset benefits, which is what mires the deal in a controversy potentially larger than the Bofors scam.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius
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