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Supreme Court asks govt to submit Rafale jet deal pricing details within 10 days

The government argued that the information is so sensitive that it has not been shared even with Parliament.

india Updated: Nov 01, 2018 00:08 IST
Bhadra Sinha
Bhadra Sinha
Hindustan Times
rafale,supreme court,CJI
The Supreme Court on Wednesday asked the Centre to submit pricing details of the Rafale jet deal in a sealed cover within 10 days, in what appeared to be a departure from its position three weeks ago when the court said it did not want to examine the issue of pricing. (PTI)

The Supreme Court on Wednesday asked the Centre to submit pricing details of the Rafale jet deal in a sealed cover within 10 days, in what appeared to be a departure from its position three weeks ago when the court said it did not want to examine the issue of pricing.

The government argued that the information is so sensitive that it has not been shared even with Parliament.

“If you feel that pricing is an exclusive issue, mention it in the affidavit,” a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi told the government, which maintained that details of the defence deal cannot be divulged due to strategic reasons.

The bench of CJI Gogoi, justice UU Lalit and justice KM Joseph is hearing petitions challenging the deal to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets from France.

At a hearing on October 10, the court sought details of the decision-making process that led to the purchase of the jets, but said at that time it did not want to get into pricing. The court said on Wednesday it received the report and asked the Centre to share with the petitioners portions that can be legitimately “brought into the public domain”.

“Along with the said facts, further details that could legitimately come in the public domain with respect to the induction of the Indian offset partner, if any, be also furnished to the lead counsel of the parties,” the bench said.

The court also said details that “may be considered to be strategic and confidential” could be placed only before the court at this stage, and may not be shared with the petitioners.

The bench clarified that it was not commenting on the merits of the case and the petitioners have not questioned the suitability of equipment and their utility to the Indian Air Force.

Attorney general KK Venugopal, the government’s top legal official, said several passages of the information already submitted in the court cannot be shared because they are covered under the Official Secrets Act. “Please read our order. Give whatever is possible,” CJI Gogoi told him.

The bench gave the government 10 days to comply with its order. Petitioners will have another seven days to file their responses on the information shared with them. The court will hear the matter again on November 14. Lawyers Vineet Dhanda and ML Sharma, and Aam Aadmi Party parliamentarian Sanjay Singh have challenged the deal in the court. Advocate Prashant Bhushan and former Union ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie have demanded a court-monitored probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).

“Wait for this. First, let the CBI get its house in order,” CJI Gogoi said, referring to the infighting between the top two officials of the agency that has reached the court. Shourie described the developments as “a very substantial step forward”. “The SC order wants the government to clarify on the procedure, price and how the offset partner was brought in. These were the exact three issues raised in our petitions. What more could we want?” he said.

Sinha said, “The court has decided to go into the pricing issue as well as the roll-out of the offset contract. All the questions that we were raising are now going to be uncovered by the SC.”

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s decision to enter a $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 United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime 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 ~1,670 crore each, three times the ~526 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, but the UPA deal, struck in 2012, was not a viable one, former defence minister Manohar Parrikar had 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 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 NDA government has said it cannot disclose the details of the price on two counts – a confidentiality agreement with France, and the strategic reason of not showing its hand to India’s enemies.

On Wednesday, the Congress reiterated its demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) on the Rafale issue. Senior Congress leader Manish Tewari said the Congress’s stand that pricing details should be revealed has been vindicated. “The most significant part of the order is on pricing of Rafale. It (the court) has asked the Centre to file an affidavit on why it claims it (pricing details) to be secret,” said Tewari.

Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala tweeted, “BJP Govt’s ‘boat of corruption’ will no longer ‘sail’, Supreme Court orders will expose the ‘truth of Rafale’.”

Communist Party of India (Marxist) politburo member Brinda Karat said the court is “very correct” in asking for “relevant information on pricing and decision-making”.

(With inputs from HT Correspondents)

First Published: Oct 31, 2018 23:14 IST