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Friday, Aug 23, 2019

SC refuses to order a probe into Rafale deal, stokes slugfest

The Supreme Court ruling came as a shot in the arm to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led NDA on the heels of reverses suffered by the ruling party in the latest round of state elections, in which it lost control of the key heartland states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

india Updated: Dec 14, 2018 23:37 IST
Ashok Bagriya, Saubhadra Chatterji and Kumar Uttam
Ashok Bagriya, Saubhadra Chatterji and Kumar Uttam
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
A visitor looks at replicas of the fighter jet Rafale (L) and Neuron on the Dassault booth during the European Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (EBACE) at Cointrin airport in Geneva, Switzerland, in this picture taken on May 19.
A visitor looks at replicas of the fighter jet Rafale (L) and Neuron on the Dassault booth during the European Business Aviation Convention & Exhibition (EBACE) at Cointrin airport in Geneva, Switzerland, in this picture taken on May 19.(REUTERS)

The Supreme Court on Friday rejected a clutch of petitions demanding a court-monitored investigation of the Rafale jet fighter deal, saying it saw no reason to doubt the process followed in the ?59,000 crore purchase, effectively vindicating the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s stand that there is nothing wrong in the deal and that due process was followed.

The court refused to go into the issue of the deal’s pricing.

In the political realm, as the NDA demanded an apology from Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who has been relentless in insisting that there has been wrongdoing in the deal, the opposition party refused to accept the government’s claim of vindication and mounted pressure for a probe by a joint parliamentary committee (JPC).

Protests and slogan-chanting by both the ruling party and opposition members forced an early adjournment of both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha even as finance minister Arun Jaitley demanded that the Congress party immediately start a discussion on the Rafale deal in the Upper House.

The Supreme Court ruling came as a shot in the arm for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the heels of reverses suffered by it in the latest round of state elections, in which it lost control of the key heartland states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Although the Congress repeatedly referred to Rafale in its campaign, political analysts aren’t sure it played a part in elections which were largely decided by rural distress and anti-incumbency.

The bench said it saw no evidence of commercial favouritism in the deal, was satisfied that due process had been followed, and the need for procuring the aircraft was not in doubt . On the pricing of the aircraft, which is at the heart of the controversy, it observed that it wasn’t the job of the court to compare pricing details.

“It is not correct for the court to sit as an appellate authority in the aircraft purchase,” a three-judge bench comprising Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi, and justices SK Kaul and KM Joseph unanimously ruled.

They dismissed four petitions demanding a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe .

“Perception of individuals cannot be the basis of a fishing and roving enquiry by this Court, especially in such matters,” said the bench, which had on November 14 reserved its judgment in the case. “We are satisfied that there is no occasion to really doubt the process, and even if minor deviations have occurred, that would not result in either setting aside the contract or requiring a detailed scrutiny by the Court,” it ruled. “Our country cannot afford to be unprepared/underprepared in a situation where our adversaries are stated to have acquired not only 4th Generation, but even 5th Generation Aircraft, of which, we have none.” The bench left it to the parties to bear their own legal costs.

The Narendra Modi government immediately launched a counteroffensive against the Opposition. “Court’s judgment on the Rafale deal exposes the campaign of misinformation spearheaded by Congress President for political gains. The court didn’t find anything wrong with the process nor did it find any commercial favouritism in the deal,” BJP president Amit Shah said.

He called the ruling a “slap on the face of falsehood.” At a press conference, Shah said the controversy raised by Gandhi has had impact on the morale of the security forces.

Home minister Rajnath Singh on Friday demanded in the Lok Sabha that Gandhi apologise on the floor of the house for “misleading” the country on the Rafale jet deal for political benefit. Parliamentary affairs Minister Narendra Tomar echoed the demand. The Congress, which wasn’t a petitioner, challenged the government to agree to a JPC probe. “The verdict of the Supreme Court is a validation of what the Congress party stated months ago, that the Supreme Court is not the forum to decide such sensitive defence contracts,” party spokesperson Randeep Surjewala told journalists.

“If they have nothing to hide, I challenge Modi ji and his government to submit to a JPC probe which will question and go into the corruption in the defence deal,” he said.

The NDA government’s decision to enter a $8.7 billion government-to-government deal with France to buy 36 Rafale warplanes made by Dassault Aviation was announced in April 2015, with an agreement signed a little over a year later. This replaced the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime’s decision to buy 126 Rafale aircraft, 108 of which were to be made in India by the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). The deal has become controversial with the opposition, led by the Congress, claiming that the price at which India is buying Rafale aircraft now is R1,670 crore for each, three times the R526 crore, the initial bid by the company when the UPA was trying to buy the aircraft. It has also claimed the previous deal included a technology transfer agreement with HAL.

The NDA has not disclosed details of the price, citing a confidentiality agreement with France and the strategic reason of not its hand to India’s enemies. The UPA deal, struck in 2012, was not a viable one, former defence minister Manohar Parrikar has previously said, implying that it would have never been closed and that, therefore, any comparison is moot. Indeed, the UPA was not able to close the deal till 2014, largely over discussions related to pricing of items not included in the initial bid.

The NDA has said that the current deal also includes customised weaponry.

The deal has also become controversial on account of the fact that one of the offset deals signed by Dassault is with the Reliance Group of Anil Ambani. The Congress claims the earlier deal was scrapped and a new one signed just to provide Ambani this opportunity for an offset deal. Both the government and Reliance have repeatedly denied this.

The petitions challenging the deal were filed by activist and lawyer Prashant Bhushan, former Union ministers Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha, Aam Aadmi Party Rajya Sabha member Sanjay Singh and advocates ML Sharma and Vineet Dhanda earlier this year.

They had questioned the deal over a perceived lack of transparency on the pricing of the jets, the offsets deal that seemed to favour Reliance Group and alleged flouting of due process in closing the deal. They said the deal wasn’t a government-to-government deal at all because France refused to offer India a sovereign guarantee and instead gave it a letter of comfort.

On Friday, the judges said they had examined the price of the basic aircraft. “Broadly, the processes have been followed. The need for the aircrafts is not in doubt. The quality of the aircraft is not in question. We cannot sit in judgment over the wisdom of deciding to go in for purchase of 36 aircraft in place of 126.”

Reliance Group chairman Anil Ambani welcomed the apex court verdict. “I welcome the judgment of the Hon’ble Supreme Court today summarily dismissing all PILs filed on the Rafale contracts, and conclusively establishing the complete falsity of the wild, baseless and politically motivated allegations levelled against Reliance Group and me personally. We remain committed to India’s national security and to making our humble contribution towards the Make in India and Skill India policies of the Government in the critical area of defence including our offset partnership agreement with our valued partner, Dassault Aviation of France,” Ambani said.

Dassault Aviation, too, welcomed the court’s judgement . In a statement it said it has taken “note of the Supreme Court conclusions establishing the absence of any irregularities in the decision making process to purchase 36 Rafale, pricing of Rafale jets and selection of Indian offset partners including Anil Ambani owned Reliance Defence by Dassault Aviation.”

“The deal is absolutely clean in accordance with Indian laws and regulations, as I have stated before” Eric Trappier, Chairman and CEO of Dassault Aviation said in the statement.

All campaigns against the Rafale deal must end after the Supreme Court’s judgement, law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said. “...I would only urge one thing, that all campaigns against Rafale must end now because the country’s strategic interest is more important,” Prasad said on the sidelines of an event organised by the industry body Confederation of Indian Industry.

That failed to silence government critics. The issue is still live in the “people’s court” and the Congress will continue to raise it in Parliament, senior party leader Jyotiraditya Scindia said on Friday. Petitioner Prashant Bhushan said he hadn’t yet decided whether to file a review petition against the Supreme Court.

(With agency inputs)

First Published: Dec 14, 2018 23:33 IST

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