Pub­lic per­cep­tions over Rafale

Havoc caused by ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in the con­tentious Rafale deal is bound to stir pub­lic per­cep­tion, es­pe­cially in the wake of up­com­ing elec­tions

Millennium Post - - Mp In Focus - UJJWAL K CHOWD­HURY

Much has been writ­ten and spo­ken about the Rafale deal and more will be done in this elec­tion sea­son. Not be­ing a de­fence ex­pert and lack­ing ex­per­tise on the pric­ing of arms and air­craft has not pre­vented peo­ple from com­ment­ing on the con­tentious is­sue. It is in­ter­est­ing to note how the Rafale deal and the is­sues sur­round­ing it will im­pact pub­lic per­cep­tions at large dur­ing this elec­tion sea­son.

The In­dian Air Force has been seek­ing a new twin-en­gine fighter jet for some time in or­der to re­place the age­ing Rus­sian fighter jets that are be­ing phased out. Af­ter test­ing out a num­ber of global op­tions, the Air Force in 2012 put the Rafale, built by France’s Das­sault, and the Eurofighter Typhoon on its fi­nal list. The Congress-led United Pro­gres­sive Al­liance govern­ment had put out a ten­der for 126 fighter jets and, be­cause of a lower bid of­fer, had planned to buy 18 Rafales in fly-away con­di­tion from Das­sault, with the re­main­ing to be built in In­dia along with the state-owned Hin­dus­tan Aero­nau­tics Lim­ited. In 2015, how­ever, on a visit to France, Modi an­nounced a com­pletely new deal, in which In­dia would be getting 36 Rafale jets from France, all in fly-away con­di­tion. Un­der the terms of the 59,000 crore deal, all planes would be built in France but Das­sault would have to off­set about 50 per cent of that cost in In­dia.

Num­ber of air­crafts

UPA deal (not signed ever) was for 126 air­craft and that of the NDA is for 36 air­craft. Modi govern­ment has been vo­cif­er­ous over the air se­cu­rity in In­dia and the need of these high-end air­craft. If so, why is the num­ber rad­i­cally di­min­ished and how does it en­sure air se­cu­rity for a vast na­tion like In­dia, the sev­enth largest by area and sec­ond largest by pop­u­la­tion in the world? This is the one com­mon ques­tion in the pub­lic mind.

The twin as­pects of the num­ber of air­craft and in­creased prices, the dam­ag­ing in­ter­views of the for­mer French Pres­i­dent, the er­ror be­fore Supreme Court and par­al­lel ne­go­ti­a­tions by the PMO, etc., are bound to be ma­jor talk­ing points in this elec­tion sea­son and will shape pub­lic opin­ion on this is­sue

Pric­ing

The UPA claim is that its ne­go­ti­ated price was 526 crores per air­craft. Though there are men­tions of this in some of­fi­cial doc­u­ments, a deal was never signed on this, how­ever. On the other hand, the fi­nal

Rafael deal by Modi govern­ment puts it to 1690 crores per air­craft, more than 300 per cent of the UPA pric­ing in 2012. Now, while Congress is claim­ing it to be a day­light rob­bery, BJP ar­gues that Congress ne­go­ti­ated for an en­gine­less ba­sic air­craft chas­sis, and with ad­vanced radar and many more fea­tures, the price is thrice to­day. It is tough to con­vince the pub­lic for a three-fold hike in the six-year gap, es­pe­cially when both the air­craft are MMRCA ones or mul­ti­mode Rafale com­bat air­craft, and 18 of the 126 in UPA deal were pegged to be in fly-away con­di­tion. Such an air­craft can­not be en­gine­less when ne­go­ti­ated to buy.

Choice of the In­dian part­ner

UPA had cho­sen Hin­dus­tan Aero­nau­tics Lim­ited (HAL) – a pub­lic sec­tor un­der­tak­ing – to be the off­set part­ner of Das­sault for Rafale. Out of the 126 Rafale jets, 18 were to be in a fly-away con­di­tion and 108 to be jointly man­u­fac­tured by HAL and

Das­sault. In the new deal though, Das­sault chose Reliance De­fence of Anil Ambani to be the off­set part­ner for 36 jets, and Das­sault was man­dated to make com­pen­satory in­vest­ments in In­dia worth 50 per cent of the to­tal cost of the deal which is 59,000 crores. For­mer Pres­i­dent of France, Fran­cois Hol­lande, who signed the in­ter-gov­ern­men­tal agree­ment on Rafale in Septem­ber 2016, told to AFP and pub­lished in Le Monde that the govern­ment of In­dia had given no choice other than Reliance De­fence to be the part­ner.

Nei­ther Reliance De­fence nor any of its al­lied com­pa­nies have any ex­pe­ri­ence of man­u­fac­tur­ing aerospace and de­fence equip­ment. Anil Ambani’s Reliance Group in­cor­po­rated a de­fence com­pany just days be­fore Modi an­nounced the new Rafale deal, a co­in­ci­dence that has caused some eye­brows to be raised. Ambani also ac­com­pa­nied Modi to France on the same visit that led to the an­nounce­ment of the deal. Crony cap­i­tal­ism hence is a nat­u­ral

crit­i­cism here.

At the time of the Das­sault deal with Ambani, Reliance De­fence, which had only been around for one year, al­ready had a debt of 8,000 crore and losses of 1,300 crores.

How­ever, both the present Pres­i­dent of France and the Das­sault CEO have noted that there were no pres­sures on them. This can be used as a counter but a weak one when the for­mer Pres­i­dent’s in­ter­view is up there in Le Monde, the lead­ing French daily.

Was PMO mon­i­tor­ing or in­ter­fer­ing in the deal?

Putting forth a note of Novem­ber 20, 2015, of the then De­fence Sec­re­tary G Mo­han Ku­mar, The Hindu news­pa­per and vet­eran ed­i­tor N Ram claimed that PMO was run­ning par­al­lel ne­go­ti­a­tions with the French side even when Min­istry of De­fence (MOD) was in ad­vanced stage of ne­go­ti­a­tions. On the other hand, the govern­ment sub­mit­ted to the Supreme Court in Oc­to­ber 2018 that only Deputy Chief of Air Staff was lead­ing the 7-mem­ber MOD team in the ne­go­ti­a­tions. Af­ter this ex­pose, while Congress claims it was an in­ter­fer­ence by the PMO to hike up the price and get Reliance in, BJP claims it was rou­tine mon­i­tor­ing by the ex­ec­u­tive – PMO. Since the prices have ac­tu­ally tripled, the mon­i­tor­ing will sound very ex­pen­sive in the pub­lic mind.

Goof-up on CAG re­port be­fore PAC

De­lib­er­at­ing on four pe­ti­tions over the same is­sue, the Supreme Court in De­cem­ber 2018 gave a ver­dict that all were in place and there was no need for a new in­ves­ti­ga­tion on the Rafale is­sue based on a sealed cover sub­mit­ted by the govern­ment. But, fac­ing a fierce Op­po­si­tion’s at­tack that it mis­led the Supreme Court by stat­ing that the pric­ing of Rafale deal has al­ready been ex­am­ined by the Comptroller and Au­di­tor Gen­eral (CAG) and the Pub­lic Ac­counts Com­mit­tee (PAC), the

govern­ment later moved an ap­pli­ca­tion in the apex court seek­ing a cor­rec­tion in the or­der. This episode has also led to doubts as to whether the govern­ment had mis­led the Supreme Court.

While no air­craft is de­liv­ered yet, and no sta­tus on their ac­tual man­u­fac­tur­ing and ad­vances from the In­dian govern­ment are yet known, the is­sue is ripe in pub­lic mind and me­dia. The twin as­pects of the num­ber of air­craft and in­creased prices, the dam­ag­ing in­ter­views of the for­mer French Pres­i­dent, the er­ror be­fore Supreme Court and par­al­lel ne­go­ti­a­tions by the PMO, etc., are bound to be ma­jor talk­ing points in this elec­tion sea­son and will shape pub­lic opin­ion on this is­sue. Al­le­ga­tions of cor­rup­tion do stick as we saw in the case of na­tional money loss in the of­ten-men­tioned 2G-3G scam of the UPA govern­ment.

(The au­thor is a me­dia aca­demic and colum­nist. Views ex­pressed are strictly per­sonal)

(Representational Im­age)

A long-stand­ing co­nun­drum over the Rafale deal is likely to in­flu­ence pub­lic opin­ion ahead of the gen­eral elec­tions

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