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Armed forces dragged into 2019 battle

Harsha Kakar |

The Rafale controversy continues. The Congress releases small revelations regularly, desperate to keep the issue in the limelight while the BJP counters them. To support the aircraft, even the senior fraternity of the air force jumped into the fray. This was criticised by the opposition as politicising the armed forces.

The comments of Francois Hollande, the ex-President of France only gave fuel to the Congress. Clarifications by the French government and Dassault, the manufacturers of Rafale, were ignored. The Congress has demanded a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to probe the deal, which the government has turned down. It is evident that the Opposition would next approach the President for it. To continue keeping the issue alive, the Congress approached CVC and CAG. The government had already announced that CAG would audit the deal.

Even the government’s foreign policy decisions are now being linked to the Rafale controversy. Pakistan has happily jumped into the fray claiming the flip-flop on the meeting between the two foreign ministers was due to pressure on the government on the Rafale accusations.

Senior Pakistani politicians have stated that Rafale is India’s Panamagate. They are anyway desperate for a change in government in India. A comment by their former interior minister, Rehman Malik stating that Rahul Gandhi would be the next PM only added to the controversy. It gave ammunition to the BJP.

Rahul Gandhi attempted to drag the armed forces into the political battle. His tweet on the subject aimed at air force personnel claimed, “we will bring to justice all those who dishonoured and stole from you”. Such an action is doing exactly what his own party accuses the BJP of, politicising the armed forces. Further, serving officers and veterans of the air force are aware of the capabilities of the aircraft and hence would only ignore such political comments.

The only individual whose words the nation would trust on the subject, PM Modi, has so far maintained silence. He has let accusations fly, with his ministers fighting the claims. It is evident that his speaking could put at rest most of the aspects that have been raised. On the other hand, the opposition is desperately seeking to entice him to speak, hoping to gain fresh ammunition.

Ignoring the realities of the deal and details of the aircraft, most of which are anyway in the public domain, there is some logic behind the approach adopted by the Congress. In every election, state or Centre, in the last almost two decades, the Congress has faced allegations of corruption. It has spent most of every campaign defending itself. Even presently, UPA-tenure scams refuse to die down.

As late as July 2017, after the release of a report by a senior Swedish officer, Sten Lindstrom, wherein he stated that the latest evidence handed over to India indicates that the level of the Bofors scam is much greater than anticipated, led to the BJP in Parliament demanding another probe. The parliamentary affairs minister had stated on the subject, “the country should know the complete truth and the Congress should not run away from a matter involving national security”. The BJP has yet to act, but it may do so prior to 2019.

Simultaneously, Christen Michel, the middle man in the AgustaWestland helicopter scam has been ordered to be deported to India by a court in the UAE. He was allegedly responsible for bribing officials in India. His deportation is still some distance away, but if the government pushes, he could be deported. The government too is in no hurry to bring him back, as elections are still some distance away. His interrogation could have helped engineer leaks to embarrass the Congress.

In this scenario, the Congress knows that it must be the first off the starting block, hoping that the BJP would spend most of the period prior to 2019 defending itself. Congress is aware that it lacks knowledge, is doubtful of Rafale being a scam, hence has only been approaching multiple central government bodies, screaming in rallies, but shying away from taking the case to court.

The Rafale claims are bound to impact the functioning of the winter session of parliament. It could be a washout. The Congress would seek to ensure this to continue its offensive. It would keep demanding a JPC and a statement by the PM, which the government is unlikely to accede to. The loser would be the nation as important bills would remain blocked.

The Congress in adopting this strategy has made a critical blunder. It has launched its offensive early and expended most of its ammunition well before the critical phase of elections, when the campaign picks up pace. It would only add bits and pieces to the present claims. As elections draw close, its story of the Rafale would be spent news, ignored by the masses. Therefore, it desperately seeks more scams to remain on the offensive.

The BJP is presently countering the Congress. The PM is maintaining his silence, biding time. The all-out offensive by both sides on scams and misdeeds would begin gaining steam from early next year. The ordering of another probe on Bofors, interrogation of Christen Michel while opening of the case of AgustaWestland would dominate news shortly.

To offset any doubts on their tenure, the BJP launched the three day ‘Parakram Parv’. This reminded the nation of multiple opposition parties, including the Congress demanding proof after the statement by the army DGMO two years ago. It has suddenly pushed the Congress into silence. With every regional and national media channel debating the topic, the government appears to have achieved its political aim and for the moment side-lined the Rafale debate.

The defence of the Rafale deal, now haphazard, would be pieced together and projected in a coordinated manner, with the PM leading the onslaught. Throughout the forthcoming election campaign, the world would only hear reports of corruption of Indian politicians and defence deals. This would be a new low in Indian politics and will harm the national image.

The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army.