The controversy over the terms of purchase of the Rafale fighter aircraft — there is no dispute about the quality of these planes — by the Narendra Modi government by altering the basic format of discussion under the previous UPA government, is singularly unfortunate. It is also hotting up by the day as the bitter attack on the government by the Congress, and the unprepossessing counter-attack, suggests.
The question of bribes and unfair commissions being taken by a poorly equipped private player on account of having the right connections are being openly discussed outside the political class as well, as the country gears up for elections.
Former French President Francois Hollande, who had been invited by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be the chief guest for the Republic Day in 2016 and negotiated the inter-government agreement, the basis of the military deal, with Mr Modi, told a French news agency last week that it was India that suggested the name of the “interlocutor” — meaning the Indian private company that Dassault, the French aircraft manufacturer, will deal with in India — and the French side had no choice in the matter.
This was explosive and Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s attack on the government and the PM grew sharper. The defence ministry denied Mr Hollande’s assertion, seeking to rubbish the Congress charge. It even pointed fingers at Mr Hollande. It said the former Fren-ch leader had a conflict of interest in the case.
Subsequently, Mr Hollande has told news agency AFP that only Dassault can say if India had applied any pressure on it to have Anil Ambani’s company as the Indian “offset partner”. Top ministers see in this an effort on Mr Hollande’s part to retreat from his earlier remarks. The thrust and parry from both sides look to be thoroughly political in nature, and the facts being brought out in the public domain can make sense only if subjected to impartial scrutiny.
In the ordinary way, even in a half-functioning democracy, the public would be discussing a probe and the political class, no matter how self-seeking, would have no choice but to structure a debate around the kind of probe that may be acceptable to the country. But it is impossible to get away from the idea of an inquiry conducted by competent persons in a deal for a military purchase costing the public exchequer Rs 59,000 crore.
Unfortunately, Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, presumably speaking for the government, has ruled out an investigation. His logic is that an inquiry cannot be held just to “satisfy the ego” of Mr Gandhi. This is an unusual argument to put forward. This country has better traditions than this and can do better....