Barbs fly between Oppn, govt in fresh Rafale row

Citing claims of a French media report on “commissions” being paid during the UPA rule, the BJP said the Indian National Congress should be renamed “I Need Commission” party.
Indian Air Force fighter jet Rafale during a rehearsal for the 89th Air Force Day parade at Hindan base in Ghaziabad on October 6, 2021. (PTI)
Indian Air Force fighter jet Rafale during a rehearsal for the 89th Air Force Day parade at Hindan base in Ghaziabad on October 6, 2021. (PTI)
Updated on Nov 10, 2021 01:48 AM IST
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By, , Hindustan Times, New Delhi

The political row over the Rafale deal escalated on Tuesday, with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accusing the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government of irregularities in its attempted deal to purchasethe fighter jets in 2012, and the principal opposition party alleging a “cover up” by the current National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government when the deal was finally sealed and executed in 2016.

French journal Mediapart on Sunday published alleged fake invoices for payments between 2004-2013, saying they enabled French aircraft maker Dassault Aviation to pay at least €7.5 million in kickbacks to a middleman to help it secure the deal. The UPA was in power then, and the deal referred to is the original one signed by the previous government with Dassault.

Citing claims of a French media report on “commissions” being paid during the UPA rule, the BJP said the Indian National Congress should be renamed “I Need Commission” party.

“The documents say Dassault, which was been described as D, paid €7.5 million or 65 crore as a commission to a middleman for 36 Rafale aircraft. This happened during 2007-12,” said BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra. The BJP leader referred to the alleged middleman in the deal, Sushen Gupta, and added that he was also involved in the AgustaWestland corrupt deal for VVIP choppers. “It is too much of a coincidence and too much of a coincidence is a conspiracy.”

He said the Congress misled the country ahead of the 2019 general elections by insinuating the BJP was responsible for irregularities in the deal. “During the UPA tenure, there was a deal within every deal.”

Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera hit back, saying an “operation cover-up” was on by the government to bury the corruption, kickback, and collusion in the deal. He called the “Rafale scam” the biggest in the history of free India. Khera said that Mediapart revealed a “dubious nexus” between the government, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), and the Enforcement Directorate (ED).

The Congress focussed on a second claim by Mediapart that Indian investigative agencies were aware of these kickbacks at least as early as 2018 -- when the current NDA regime was in place -- but chose not to probe the charges. The report added that the deal involved offshore companies, dubious contracts, and false invoices. Mediapart said detectives from CBI and ED have had proof since October 2018 that Dassault paid commissions to Gupta.

“Were the anti-corruption clauses deleted to escape responsibility from bribery and commission to be paid in the Rafale deal? Why was the deletion of anti-corruption clauses approved by the Prime Minister and the Modi government in September 2016, despite the defence ministry’s insistence upon including it in the inter-governmental agreement in July 2015,” Khera asked. “Is this the reason that CBI-ED refused to probe the corruption in Rafale deal since October 11, 2018, till date?” he asked.

India’s decision to sign an $8.7 billion government-to-government deal with France to buy 36 Rafale warplanes made by Dassault was announced in April 2015, with an agreement signed a little over a year later. This replaced the previous Congress-led UPA government’s decision to buy 126 Rafale aircraft, 108 of which were to be made in India by the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL).

Mediapart has published several reports on alleged irregularities in the Rafale deal.

Five months ago, it reported that a French judge was appointed to head a probe into suspected “corruption and favouritism” in the deal. In a report in April, the journal said that it was in possession of documents that showed Dassault and its industrial partner Thales, a defence electronics firm, paid “middleman” Gupta several million euros in “secret commissions” in connection with the deal. HT could not reach Gupta for a response.

In another April report, Mediapart claimed that Dassault paid €1 million to Gupta for manufacturing 50 replica models of Rafale jets, even though the planemaker provided inspectors of French anti-corruption agency Agence Française Anticorruption no proof that these models were made.

HT has not reviewed any of the documents cited by Mediapart.

Khera accused the government of undermining national security, jeopardising the interest of the armed forces, and causing a huge loss to the exchequer. He questioned why there was no investigation against Gupta.

Patra said the Congress should clarify the alleged irregularities when the UPA was in power. “For 10 years, the IAF (Indian Air Force) was deprived of fighter aircraft. There were negotiations without conclusion... now we know the negotiation was about the commission, not the aircraft.”

Rahul Gandhi later chose to address his party colleagues through a tweet on the issue, asking them not to stop or be afraid of fighting against the “corrupt” central government. “When the truth is with you in every step, then what is there to worry about? My Congress colleagues - keep fighting like this against the corrupt central government. Don’t stop, don’t get tired, don’t be afraid,” Gandhi said in a tweet in Hindi, using the hashtag “#RafaleScam”.

Patra also referred to a Supreme Court verdict saying it saw nothing wrong in the current deal and the government’s auditor Comptroller and Auditor General of India’s (CAG) conclusion the same year that India had not overpaid for the jets.

The Supreme Court heard a public interest case on the deal and, in November 2019, said it saw nothing wrong in it. In a February 2019 report, the CAG said India had not overpaid for the jets.

Patra said if the Congress felt the BJP government was not investigating the scams, then it should go to court. “[It should] ask why [the government] is not carrying out investigations against the Gandhi family…,” he said in response to a question on why the investigation was not being carried out. “...They are trying to tease us and whenever investigations were carried out, they screamed vendetta.”

The Opposition, led by the Congress, has previously claimed that the price at which India was buying Rafale aircraft was 1,670 crore for each, three times the initial bid of 526 crore by the company when the UPA was trying to buy the aircraft. It also claimed the previous deal included a technology transfer agreement with HAL.

The government has said that its deal includes several specific ready-to-fly security enhancements,and that it cannot disclose the details of the price because of a confidentiality agreement with France, and the strategic reason of not showing its hand to India’s enemies. The government submitted details of the price of the jets in a sealed envelope to the Supreme Court, and the court said it would not get into the pricing issue.

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Monday, January 17, 2022