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.