From Day One, the Rafale deal had raised much dust. It was unexpectedly and hurriedly announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his France visit in April 2015, but signed in September 2016. Controversies were constant companions since the deal was struck due to lack of transparency in the whole affair. Two major controversies hinge on the alleged price escalation and the partnership between Dassault, the French manufacturer of the aircraft, and Reliance Defence Limited.
First, the row over price. In November 2016, the government told Parliament that each Rafale would cost Rs 670 crore. But, a year later both Dassault and Reliance Defence claimed that the price would be Rs 1600 crore each. According to some reports, quoting sources close to the government, the original price was for ‘bare bone’ aircraft. The price went up because of ‘India specific enhancement’ being introduced in each jet. This plausible explanation fell flat when some of the former BJP leaders themselves revealed that the 2015 agreement had specified the same configuration as proposed by the UPA government. But the mystery over it remains as the government is taking cover under some unexplained ‘secret clause’ and refusing to divulge the price officially. This makes one think that there are skeletons in the cupboard which the government is trying its best from tumbling out.
The second charge got a boost from an unexpected, but authoritative, quarter. Former French President François Hollande, in a recent interview, stated that it was India that suggested Anil Ambani-owned Reliance Defence Limited as the offset partner for the deal. This squarely contradicts what the Modi government has been saying all along. While the Central government had insisted that the choice of the partner was entirely of manufacturer Dassault, Mr. Hollande’s remarks have now nailed the lie. The Opposition led by the Congress has cornered the Modi government for its ‘favouritism’ shown to an industrialist who is seen currying favour with the present dispensation in many other areas too.
The present controversy has only added to the already known inconsistencies on the issue. Anil Ambani has time and again stated that ‘not a single component worth a single rupee is to be manufactured by his group for the 36 Rafale jets India is buying from France’. But this is in contrast to Dassault CEO Eric Trappier’s version that the Dassault-Reliance joint venture plant at Nagpur will be used for making its components. In the midst of all these claims and counter-claims, common people are at a loss unable to get clear answers to their doubts.
Clarifications by both sides of the deal have not cleared the air. This veil of mystery will be removed only if the government comes clean on the issue, without taking recourse to the so called ‘secret clause’. Mr. Hollande’s revelation is powerful enough to turn the tables on the government. It has called in question the very process of signing the deal in haste. The Opposition’s demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into the issue is worth giving a try. If the government insists that it has nothing to hide, the JPC would be the right forum to vindicate its stand. Or else it can even become a ‘Bofors moment’ for the Modi government.(Published on 01st October 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 40)