The culmination of a 7.8-billion Euros (Rs 58,415 crore) agreement for 36 Rafale fighter planes triggered a political dogfight on Saturday, with the Congress picking holes in the deal saying the numbers weren’t enough to meet the air force’s requirements.
Senior Congress leader and former defence minister AK Antony said absence of provisions for transfer of technology to build the warplanes in India would cost the country “very heavily”.
Defence minister Manohar Parrikar and his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian inked the inter-governmental agreement on Friday, ending long-drawn-out negotiations that began after PM Narendra Modi announced the deal in April 2015.
Addressing a press conference along with party spokesman
Manish Tewari at the AICC headquarters, Antony questioned how just 36 fighter planes would fill the IAF’s capability gaps especially when Pakistan was rapidly beefing up its air power.
The IAF projected a requirement for modern fighter planes way back in 2001 to replace ageing Soviet-era fighter jets. India floated a global tender in August 2007 to buy 126 planes but it stood cancelled when Modi declared India would buy 36 Rafales from France under a government-to-government deal.
Antony said the Make in India component to build 108 of the 126 planes in original plan had “gone” in the present deal. “Now they are purchasing everything from abroad and that too when we are talking about Make in India,” he said. He asked the government to make the agreement public.
Antony said if the IAF was not equipped with more fighter planes its fighter squadron strength would dip to 25 by 2022. Currently, India has 33 fighter squadrons with 18 planes each but it requires 45 units to tackle a combined threat from China and Pakistan.
The NDA government has claimed hard bargaining helped India save Euro 328 million. “Today we read inspired pieces in some media, which claim the present government has saved money by hard negotiations. That’s not true,” Antony said. “You can’t compare the Rafale deal price during UPA government’s time and now.”
However, the NDA government has said in the past that the deal for 126 fighters was doomed from the start because Antony had put a “question mark” on it. French firm Dassault Aviation, which manufactures Rafale fighters, was the front-runner for that contract.
In an earlier interview with HT, Parrikar questioned the tendering process for the 126 planes and criticised the method employed to determine Dassault Aviation as the lowest bidder (L1).
In the 2015 interview, Parrikar said his predecessor had himself put a question mark on the deal’s future by saying India should go for price negotiations (with L1) first but later review the procedure by which L1 was determined.