The government has not been too forthcoming on the Dassault deal for the purchase of 36 Rafale multi-role medium combat aircraft for the IAF despite the issue gaining serious connotations with the Opposition making repeated demands for more information on the details while imputing there are irregularities involved. While there is no reason to suspect bribery is an issue on facts known at the moment, the changed contours of the deal — from an initially envisaged purchase of 126 aircraft, of which 18 would be ready-to-fly plus transfer of technology that would have been closer to partially filling the huge gap between IAF requirements and the number of squadrons operative now — has led to so many whispers. The government must feel obliged to share at least the broad details of the deal with prominent Opposition leaders so as to put a stop to the endless chatter.
The hardened attitude of the government towards what the Opposition — principally the president of the Congress Party — has been saying on the subject is clear in the note that the defence ministry put out. The tone and tenor of the explanation was more political than it should have been, particularly as it comes from the ministry of defence and not the ruling party. By refusing to part with any information either in Parliament or in closed door briefings with the Opposition, the government has only allowed more questions to be raised as Rahul Gandhi did on Friday while serving notice on Parliament to be allowed to speak on the subject. Since the deal to buy one of the most modern aircraft can only be for the good of national defence and for equipping the Air Force with the best possible resource, the government should ideally address the issue rather than shy away from it.
No defence deal after Bofors was ever likely to sail smoothly. In fact, because of the allegations over the gun purchase in the 1980s, defence preparedness also suffered in the last UPA decade with the then defence minister making a virtue of his integrity and virtually refusing to sign any deals, even at the cost of leaving the forces underprepared. As Rafale — at a basic price of Rs 670 crore per aircraft plus weaponry and performance-based logistics support — is the biggest defence deal in years, there were bound to be any number of issues rising around it. Since the basic pricing and other details are already available in the public domain, the need for secrecy now because there are fears over national security seems like a political argument stretched. There is a need for clarity on certain issues like Dassault’s discharge of the 50 per cent offset component built into the deal for making aircraft parts in India with a private Indian defence company. A decision to keep at least the Opposition abreast of details has to come from the highest in the land since he had personally driven the clinching of the deal.