The Supreme Court on Wednesday reserved its verdict on a bunch of petitions demanding a probe into the procurement of 36 Rafale fighter jets from France.
A three-judge bench, headed by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and comprising Justices UU Lalit and KM Joseph, held a marathon 4-hour hearing on petitions seeking a court-monitored probe into the controversial deal.
As the top court commenced its crucial hearing, the Government expressed its objection to the court reviewing the deal saying, “it is for experts to review the deal, not the court”.
Taking a strong stand in the apex court, Attorney General KK Venugopal appearing for the Centre said the Rafale deal pricing details are a matter of “national security” and cannot come under judicial review.
After the court asked for the assistance of an Air Force officer in the issue, Alok Khosla, Commander-in-Chief, Eastern Air Command, and deputy chief of air staff VR Chowdhuri and two other officers appeared in the court to answer the questions.
On being asked about the latest inductions to the Indian Air Force, the officers told the court that Sukhoi-30s was the latest to be inducted adding that India needs fourth or fifth generation fighter jets, because of which the Rafale jet was chosen.
They further stated that there has been no induction of aircraft since 1985.
After hearing the senior Indian Air Force officials, CJI Ranjan Gogoi said, “The Air Marshal and Vice-Marshals can go back. It is a different war game here in court. You can go to the actual war rooms”.
Meanwhile, AG KK Venugopal told the court that Dassault had not yet submitted details of its offset partner to the government.
He further said that there was no sovereign guarantee from the French government on the delivery of 36 Rafale jets but that French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe had written the government a letter of comfort.
Venugopal had earlier told the court that secrecy was not on the price of the aircraft but on weaponry and avionics.
“The price of Rafale with the break-up of weapons and avionics has been shared with the court, but the court cannot sit in judicial review on it,” he asserted.
The AG said the pricing details have been submitted in a sealed cover but there are factors like inter-governmental agreement which barred its disclosure.
Meanwhile, in a setback to the petitioners, the Supreme Court said there was no need to disclose pricing details to the petitioners.
“Any debate on the pricing of the Rafale deal comes only if this court decides those aspects need to come in the public domain,” the CJI stated.
Petitioners had earlier on Wednesday told the Supreme Court that the government had “committed serious fraud” in the purchase of 36 fighter jets from France.
A bench comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and justices S K Kaul and K M Joseph is examining the pricing details of the Rafale jets submitted by the government in a sealed cover.
Senior Supreme Court lawyer, Prashant Bhushan, appearing for former Union minister Arun Shourie, submitted that there cannot be any secrecy in the pricing issue when the government itself had disclosed the price in the Parliament.
He further submitted that the NDA government “short-circuited” the acquisition process by taking the Inter-Government Agreement (IGA) route to avoid giving tender.
Bhushan, also told the apex court that there was no sovereign guarantee from the French government in the deal.
Bhushan submitted that nobody knows about the alleged change in the deal done by the prime minister and even the defence minister was not aware of the change.
Advocate ML Sharma told the court that the IGA was “illegal” and sought an investigation into the matter.
The Centre on Monday complied with a Supreme Court order and handed over to petitioners, who sought a court-monitored CBI probe into the procurement of 36 Rafale fighter jets from France, the document detailing the decisions taken to procure the aircraft.
The centre also submitted the pricing details of the Rafale fighter jet deal in a sealed cover to the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court had on October 31 asked the Central government to place before it in a sealed cover within 10 days the pricing details and the deemed advantage in the Rafale deal.
The Congress has been accusing massive irregularities in the deal, alleging that the government was procuring each aircraft at a cost of over Rs 1,670 crore as against Rs 526 crore finalised by the UPA government when it was negotiating procurement of 126 Rafale jets.
PM Modi announced the purchase of 36 Rafale fighters after talks with Hollande on April 10, 2015, in Paris.