India Today - - EDITOR-IN-CHIEF -

The dog­fight over the pur­chase of 36 Rafale planes cur­rently dom­i­nat­ing pub­lic dis­course in the coun­try re­minds me of the dic­tum, ‘Don’t con­fuse me with facts’. Na­tional lead­ers are call­ing each other thieves, liars, traitors and, of course, cor­rupt. Even Pak­istan and the cur­rent and a former pres­i­dent of France have been dragged into the im­broglio. The two na­tional par­ties seem to be like two blind­folded box­ers punch­ing in the air hop­ing to land a knock­out punch. A lot of half-truths are fly­ing around, with facts be­com­ing the big­gest ca­su­alty. In the eye of the storm is in­dus­tri­al­ist Anil Am­bani.

The con­tro­versy is cen­tred around the Rs 30,000 crore ‘off­sets’ that Das­sault and its as­so­ciates have to spend with In­dian man­u­fac­tur­ers not nec­es­sar­ily re­lated to the Rafale air­craft as part of the Rs 59,000 crore Rafale deal. The al­le­ga­tion is that the younger Am­bani’s joint ven­ture with Das­sault has been favoured with all of the Rs 30,000 crore be­cause of his per­ceived prox­im­ity to Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi. The sug­ges­tion that his com­pany is get­ting all of it is not true. There are 72 com­pa­nies that have been iden­ti­fied by the French in­dus­trial part­ners in the deal— Safran, Thales, Das­sault Avi­a­tion—for the off­set. Am­bani is likely to get a de­cent share, but the big­gest ben­e­fi­ciary will be the govern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tion DRDO, or the De­fence Re­search and De­vel­op­ment Or­gan­i­sa­tion, with an es­ti­mated Rs 9,000 crore.

The other big is­sue is that Am­bani has no track record in de­fence man­u­fac­tur­ing and has sev­eral failed ven­tures at­tached to his name. Most of his group com­pa­nies are in poor fi­nan­cial health and laden with a debt of Rs 1.12 lakh crore as of March 2018.

As if that were not enough, there are some du­bi­ous ‘co­in­ci­dences’. He in­cor­po­rated his de­fence com­pany only 12 days be­fore the Rafale deal was an­nounced on April 10, 2015. Rais­ing some more eye­brows was the fact that his en­ter­tain­ment com­pany part-fi­nanced a film pro­duced by ac­tor Julie Gayet, part­ner of former French Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande who signed the Rafale deal, and is­sued a press re­lease dur­ing Hol­lande’s visit to In­dia on Jan­uary 26, 2017. To make mat­ters worse, Hol­lande lit a fuse last week when, in re­sponse to a query by French web­site Me­di­a­part, he said he had noth­ing to do with Am­bani be­ing cho­sen as an off­set part­ner for Das­sault as it was the In­dian govern­ment which had pro­posed his name. And the In­dian govern­ment all along had been ve­he­mently in­sist­ing that it was Das­sault’s de­ci­sion, not theirs. A flurry of un­con­vinc­ing de­nials en­sued, with both govern­ments say­ing they had noth­ing to do with Das­sault’s choice.

Add to this heady cock­tail are sev­eral other con­tro­ver­sial is­sues. What is the real price of the air­craft? Is it cheaper than the one ne­go­ti­ated by the UPA govern­ment six years ago? Was it fully loaded or not in the price? Why did we buy 36 air­craft in­stead of the 126 in the orig­i­nal UPA con­tract? Why was HAL ex­cluded from the deal when it was there orig­i­nally? Did the prime min­is­ter short-cir­cuit the pur­chase pro­ce­dures of the govern­ment? Our cover story, writ­ten by Ex­ec­u­tive Ed­i­tor San­deep Un­nithan, a de­fence ex­pert who has writ­ten ex­ten­sively on the sub­ject, tack­les all these prickly ques­tions to bring some san­ity to the de­bate.

Mean­while, Rafale has be­come the ba­sis of one messy po­lit­i­cal slugfest although there is no clear ev­i­dence of mid­dle­men or bribes be­ing paid. There are no Swiss bank ac­counts or money trail like the Bo­fors scan­dal. Be­sides, all these con­tracts will come to fruition only in three to five years’ time. Re­gard­less, the Congress party sees a chink in Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s shiny ar­mour of pro­bity and his proud boast of run­ning a govern­ment free of cor­rup­tion or crony cap­i­tal­ism. Ex­actly what can­di­date Modi had ac­cused the UPA govern­ment of in the 2014 gen­eral elec­tion. As the elec­tion sea­son draws upon us, Rahul Gandhi is now at­tempt­ing a Modi on Modi. Whether any of this will stick and be­come an elec­tion is­sue is an open ques­tion. It has def­i­nitely put the BJP on the back­foot.

This kind of mud­sling­ing also does not bode well for In­dia’s much-needed de­fence pur­chases. Since it’s a govern­ment to govern­ment agree­ment on the PM’s ini­tia­tive, the best course is trans­parency. Bring out all the facts and the ra­tio­nale in an im­par­tial man­ner. Sun­light is the best sani­tiser.

(Aroon Purie)

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