The Rafale controversy continues to rage. During the recent state elections and even in the present Parliament session, the Congress accused the government on its procurement processes in the Rafale case. Rahul Gandhi first attempted to rope in the HAL. That rebounded. He then began accusing the government of multiple flaws in the deal, each of which was proved wrong. Yet the accusations are repeated.
Disgruntled members of the BJP, Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie, joining advocate Prashant Bhushan, approached the Supreme Court hoping for some pressure on the government but were disappointed. The Congress hoped for some reaction from the courts but responded later by stating that the court was not the forum to approach.
The claims by the Congress on Rafale appear to be unsubstantiated as there is truly no proof of corruption. They could in no way criticise the choice of aircraft as it was selected by their government. Thus they went after peripheral issues. The air chief had clarified that the aircraft was essential and would be a game changer. He even stated that the Supreme Court had supported the purchase.
On multiple occasions he defended the decision to purchase 36 aircraft, which was conveniently ignored. In retaliation Congress leaders termed him a liar and asked service chiefs to stop commenting on the Rafale deal. When the Congress had nothing, they jumped on the escalated cost.
That the cost was meant to escalate is also well known to them, as prices of a basic version and a fully fitted aircraft are vastly different. In addition, there is the time lapse between the selection and the final signing of the contract, leading to escalation. The basic price remains lower than the initial price under the UPA.
Further, additional costs are incurred due to the insertion of a clause by which the company is responsible to ensure a fixed level of serviceability of aircraft. This implies ready availability of spare parts, an aspect which has dogged other aircraft in service, mainly of Russian origin. This has been ignored.
The next objection has been on offsets. The Congress claims that offsets have favoured Anil Ambani. That the Ambani company is just one of the 72 contracted for offsets, not the sole one, is also known, but ignored hoping the gullible public falls for their words. Ambani’s share of the offset would be just 12-15 per cent but he is being projected as the sole beneficiary.
Another objection has been why only 36 were purchased and not 126.
The Congress have ignored their own ex-defence minister, AK Anthony, when he had stated on ‘camera’ that there were just not enough funds for purchasing 126 aircraft. Interestingly, had the government procured 126 aircraft, Tejas would have remained on the drawing board for another decade. The air force would never have accepted the Tejas as an alternate option as it has done now. The fact that the HAL is now manufacturing an aircraft, rather than assembling it is ignored.
The acceptance of a debate and scaling down of the demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to study the deal was also accepted with an intention. The formation of the JPC and providing it necessary details could have been inordinately delayed. Further, nothing would have emerged. This only if the government accepted the demand for a JPC. By agreeing to a debate, the Congress hoped to gain support from media coverage.
The raising of the Rafale deal daily in almost every conversation and speech is akin to adopting the age-old adage that a lie repeated daily would project some semblance of truth. Aware that the government would not disclose details of the contract as these are binding, the Congress bashes on.
This raises the question as to why the Congress is flogging a dead horse. There could be multiple reasons for this action. The first is that they cannot question defence acquisitions of the present government as it has been far better than during their tenure.
They cannot question other deals, as all like the Rafale have been government-to-government and clean. They have no grounds to charge the government with corruption or failures, as no open instances exist. It is also intended to draw the government into defending itself on an issue where nothing exists, thus preventing them from gaining national support for their many programmes and achievements. Further, aware that the tide would slowly turn against them, they need to be one step ahead.
The turning of the tide is the arrival of Christen Michel of AgustaWestland fame in the country and the rebirth of the National Herald case. With no court orders to stop the sharing of information on the questioning of Christen Michel, revelations have begun to flow, albeit slowly. The pace would quicken as elections draw close. Michel is not going anywhere soon. This could impact the Congress image, hence desperate to stay ahead, they are bashing ahead on Rafale. They are hopeful that when AgustaWestland gathers steam, they would have Rafale to counter it.
The National Herald case would soon be in the apex court, embarrassing the Congress. It would then cry foul claiming any judgement against them is political vendetta for raising Rafale.
The Congress desperately seeks to make Rafale its flagship charge against the government till May 2019. However, it would be forced to defend its involvement in the AgustaWestland and National Herald cases.
The battle of 2019 may be dominated by defence scams rather than governance, national security or economic growth. It may be a battle of projecting to the national public which party is a bigger thief, rather than which party would provide economic relief and growth. It would be a battle between two rival heads of political parties accusing one another of financial impropriety rather than of caring for the national public. Is this what the nation deserves?
(The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army)