The stubborn doubts over the purchase agreement of the Rafale fighter aircraft from France, by scrapping the earlier UPA-era deal with French manufacturers Dassault Aviation, have deepened with new French media exposures and the dash by defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman Thursday on a three-day visit without answering questions.
Questions are being raised on a range of questions intended to probe corruption to favour a prominent Indian businessman. Before flying to France, Ms Sitharaman stuck to the standard line that the new Rafale deal, to cost India Rs 59,000 crores, was struck under an inter-governmental pact with France. Dassault was free to choose its “offset” partners in India, and the government had no hand in dictating who it should be.
Under our defence purchase procedures, foreign suppliers of defence wares must invest at least 30 per cent of the total price in India to strengthen India’s defence manufacturing capabilities. In this case, Dassault agreed to 50 per cent “offset” investment, namely approximately Rs 30,000 crores.
The government’s line came under fire on Wednesday when French media portal Mediapart quoted from internal Dassault documents which plainly said the name of the key Indian offset partner was dictated to by the Narendra Modi government, and accepting that partner was a “compensation” for the aircraft sale a condition.
The clearest meaning is that the government threatened that there may be no deal if this particular business group that was, incidentally, “at the point of insolvency” was not chosen.
Interestingly, the government hasn’t responded to the latest Mediapart accusation, as it had earlier done when the same portal quoted former French President Francois Hollande. In the latest exposure, the Modi government has been quiet but let Dassault issue a statement contradicting the news story by merely asserting that Dassault had independently chosen its partner.
In light of the raging controversy, and Ms Sitharaman’s reluctance to address key issues, her trip to France seems singularly ill-timed.
Also, earlier this week, the Supreme Court ordered the government to submit to it in a sealed cover documents on the selection process for Rafale. The Congress Party in late September urged the Comptroller and Auditor-General to investigate the Rafale deal. And former NDA ministers Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha, along with prominent lawyer Prashant Bhushan, have officially approached the CBI for an investigation. The government must issue at least a White Paper for now....