By Prarthana Mitra
Labelled as a scam with no parallel, the Indo-French defence deal which has been on everyone’s mind since the No-Confidence debate could still be a smoking gun for the centre. Even as the Narendra Modi government continues to defend it, one cannot ignore the overwhelming evidence of discrepant and suspicious terms buried in the fine print.
The deal in question involves the manufacture and purchase of 36 of the world’s most powerful combat aircraft in “fly-away” condition, which should have reached India by 2017. According to the joint India-France statement declared in 2015, the aircraft and systems would be “on the same configuration as had been tested and approved by the IAF in the MMRCA evaluation” back in 2007.
Ostensibly, this doesn’t sound so sinister, until you take a look at the particulars of the original Rafale deal proposed under the UPA government.
What did the original deal entail?
Based on a detailed requisition by the Indian Air Force, the UPA government in 2007 issued a request for proposal (RFP) for 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircrafts (MMRCA) inclusive of all costs from initial purchase to transfer of technology and licensed production.
Six vendors had submitted bids, of which 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 (fully built) condition” and the remaining 108 fighters would be manufactured in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) under a Transfer of Technology agreement.
What was the deal finalised in 2015?
After Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed the deal in April 2015, the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar disclosed that the price for 126 aircrafts would have been about Rs 90,000 crore, inclusive of everything. Foreign Secretary, S. Jaishankar, in a press briefing before Modi’s France visit, said, “In terms of Rafale, my understanding is that there are discussions underway between the French company, our Ministry of Defence, the HAL which is involved in this. These are ongoing discussions. These are very technical, detailed discussions. We do not mix up leadership level visits with deep details of ongoing defence contracts. That is on a different track. A leadership visit usually looks at big picture issues even in the security field.”
Within two days of this announcement, a completely new deal had been struck, according to which, 36 Rafale jets were to be purchased in a government-to-government agreement. India and France signed a Rs 59,000 crore deal on September 23, 2016, for 36 Rafale jets.
Criticism from opposition
The Congress has alleged a massive scam behind the massive irregularities in the deal, with respect to the new cost of each aircraft of over Rs 1,670 crore as against Rs 526 crore finalised by the UPA government.
Much intrigue also surrounds HAL’s exit from the work-share agreement, just days before the new deal was signed in 2015. Two private companies, Adani Defence Systems and Technologies Limited and Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence Ltd, were inducted just days before the new 36 Rafale deal comes, while a public sector organisation with 60 years of experience in aircraft manufacturing was manifestly kicked out.
The Congress has also accused the centre of benefitting Reliance Defence with the offset deal, alleging that the firm was set up just days before the deal. Ambani has vociferously denied the claims, and even threatened to file a defamation suit against Congress mouthpiece National Herald this week.
The criticism was compounded by the government’s insistence on a “secrecy clause” that prevents them from sharing or explaining the discrepancy in cost.
Ever since Rahul Gandhi’s scathing attack on Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in parliament last month, several media organisations are calling the non-disclosure a baseless lie. The Congress also claim that their attempts to investigate or report on the claim are being systematically impeded by the centre. Further, it is common knowledge that NDAs usually pertain to technical specifications and operational capabilities of the aircraft; it does not oblige the buyer to keep the price secret.
The government later justified the difference in cost, saying that the deliverables of the two deals were different. Echoing Ambani’s counter-accusation, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has also asked the opposition to quit “peddling untruth“. The deal signed by the NDA government was on better terms than the one agreed upon in 2007 by the UPA government, he added.
To put things in perspective, Qatar had purchased 12 Rafale fighter jets in November 2017 for around Rs. 694.80 crores per aircraft.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius
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