India Today - - LEISURE UPFRONT - —Sandeep Un­nithan

De­fence deals have turned into po­lit­i­cal mis­siles for the BJP and the op­po­si­tion Congress in re­cent years. If the BJP is pur­su­ing the UPA-era (now can­celled) Rs 3,600 crore Agus­taWest­land VVIP chop­per scam for al­leged bribery leads to the Congress, the lat­ter has spied an op­por­tu­nity too. Congress pres­i­dent-des­ig­nate Rahul Gandhi launched a fierce as­sault on the gov­ern­ment on Novem­ber 16, al­leg­ing a scam in the Septem­ber 2016 deal for 36 Rafale fighter jets worth €7.87 bil­lion (Rs 56,000 crore) signed be­tween In­dia and France. Rahul al­leged the jets cost three times the price the UPA had ne­go­ti­ated for them, that Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi had by­passed the Cabi­net Com­mit­tee on Se­cu­rity when he an­nounced the deal in Paris in April 2015, and that he’d over­looked pub­lic sec­tor un­der­tak­ing Hin­dus­tan Aero­nau­tics Ltd (HAL) to favour Anil Am­bani’s Re­liance De­fence Ltd,

which has no pre­vi­ous air­craft-mak­ing ex­pe­ri­ence.

Rahul Gandhi didn’t sup­ply proof of these al­le­ga­tions, but com­ing as they did ahead of the Gu­jarat assem­bly elec­tions, his state­ments caught the gov­ern­ment on the back foot. De­fence Min­is­ter Nir­mala Sitharaman called his al­le­ga­tions ‘shame­ful’ and Rahul Gandhi’s state­ments drew a rare re­but­tal from French of­fi­cials. The Congress kept up its bar­rage, nev­er­the­less, bait­ing the gov­ern­ment into re­veal­ing the unit cost of each air­craft. And there will cer­tainly be some fire­works over this in the up­com­ing win­ter ses­sion of Par­lia­ment.

The truth, as usual, is more com­pli­cated. Das­sault’s Rafale did fin­ish ahead in a tor­tu­ous seven-year process to buy 126 jets. The UPA gov­ern­ment had ear­marked $10 bil­lion (Rs 68,000 crore) for the deal in 2007, but the con­tract was never signed. By 2012, the price had bal­looned to over $20 bil­lion, twice the amount set aside by the gov­ern­ment.

“The new deal was cheaper, it was to be de­liv­ered faster, on much bet­ter terms, with su­pe­rior weaponry,” says a se­nior gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial. Com­par­ing the two deals, de­fence min­istry of­fi­cials say, is disin­gen­u­ous be­cause at €3.3 bil­lion (Rs 23,000 crore), the ac­tual fly­away cost of the 36 air­craft was just half the €6.8 bil­lion (Rs 49,000 crore) con­tract signed in 2016. The re­main­ing sum, they main­tain, was to be spent on ground sup­port equip­ment, the weapons pack­age and unique re­quire­ments like cre­at­ing par­al­lel in­fra­struc­ture for the Rafales in two air bases—Hasi­mara in West Ben­gal and Sar­sawa in UP.

The 36 air­craft deal also came with a five-year ‘Per­for­mance-based Lo­gis­tics’ agree­ment to en­sure that nearly 75 per cent of the air­craft strength would be avail­able at any point. (Less than 50 per cent of In­dia’s Rus­sian-ori­gin Sukhoi fleet is thought to be avail­able.) The first Rafales are to fly in by Fe­bru­ary 2020 and all 36 by 2022. The jury is out on whether the gov­ern­ment’s vig­or­ous de­fence of the air­craft bright­ens or dims Rafale’s chances in In­dia. It’s in the fray to sell an ad­di­tional 36 Rafales and 54 air­craft car­rier-based vari­ants of the air­craft to the navy. But what the fi­asco un­der­scores is the need for greater trans­parency in de­fence deals.

JET SET Anil Am­bani (cen­tre) af­ter a flight in a Rafale jet at the aero show in Ben­galuru


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