For once Nirmala Sitharaman was on target ~ the Rafale controversy is a battle of perception. Her determination to spearhead the government’s counter-assault against the barrage from Rahul Gandhi, Opposition leaders, and some former BJP stalwarts, does, however, point to the NDA hurting. For a government that has made a fineart of managing headlines ~ Arun Shourie insists that is its sole claim to fame ~ the bold print that screams “scam” etc does put Mr Narendra Modi and his team between a rock and a hard place.

Without passing any value judgment on the political brickbat-exchange, it has to be noted that even Rahul Gandhi’s most bitters critics recognise that in the acquisition of the Rafale jetfighters from France he has found much live ammunition. That is confirmed by the NDA bid to fight fire with fire: now contending that the “original” deal with Dassault aviation was scuttled because it did not offer a share of the spoils to an associate of Robert Vadra ~ forcing a recall of roles played in the Bofors deal three decades back by Win Chadda, Ottavio Quattrocchi, Sonia’s brother-in-law etc.

A minister in the NDA only “discovered” that angle a day ago: clearly the Dirty Tricks department has been revived. Since Rahul’s firestorm has not ignited the entire Opposition (as Bofors had done), Mr Modi & Co. could probably “ride out the gale”, yet it is inevitable that some of the Rafale stench will persist ~ just what the doctor did not order for the NDA when it is launching a re-election campaign. Thus far investigative journalists in India and France have not unearthed too much, but the former French President has indeed opened a window: skeletons could emerge from the closet, as they had done in Sweden. Remember that one of Vajpayee’s preferred ministers, Jaswant Singh, had dubbed arms dealers the “hyenas of the world…”

If Rahul’s assault has appeared wayward, inconsistent shooting in the dark, the government too has lacked cohesive credibility. The law minister’s hint that more Rafales may be acquired is a belated response to the charge that 36 planes would not empower the IAF, and Mrs Sitharaman’s backtracking on announcing the price of the fully weaponised jet is an insult to the Indian taxpayer.

The NDA is not paying from its own pocket. Why an Ambani-owned firm figures in the equation triggers another set of doubts. Rahul’s demand for a JPC is ridiculous: experience shows they simply do not deliver. No less ridiculous is the NDA’s faith in the CAG and CVC: successive governments have reduced those agencies ~ along with the CBI, NIA, ED etc ~ to the government’s rubber-stamps. There is none left to trust. It took Kargil for the Bofors howitzer to prove its lethality, hopefully there will be no parallel requirement for the Rafale to flip its wings.