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Capital Grapevine  

Virendra Kapoor

The Shourie, Sinha, Bhushan axis fails where Rahul Gandhi did not succeed

Trio’s public credibility eroded further for lack of proof of any wrong-doing

Rahul Gandhi seems to have new allies in Arun Shourie, Yashwant Sinha and Prashant Bhushan. Realizing that the Congress boss has failed to find any traction making a case of wrong-doing in the purchase of Rafale aircraft, the trio has lent their voice to try and create suspicion of hanky-panky in the deal with the French government-owned Dassault Aviation. Yet, even they have offered little or no evidence to substantiate the charge. It is so because neither the name of the bribe-taker nor the suspected amount of bribes involved is mentioned by these well-known traducers of Modi.

Quite aside from the right or wrong of the Rafale deal, the public credibility of Rahul and his new-found friends is rather low. In particular, it suffers a huge diminution as against Modi’s standing as an incorruptible politician. This is not to doubt the integrity of the foursome. No, only to point out that they come across as losers who are either desperate to throw mud at Modi due for advancement, or, having been denied patronage by government, have slowly but certainly veered towards the opposition.

Remember Shourie was a contender for the finance minister’s post. He had virtually persuaded himself that he is getting that plum position. So much so he most gratuitously began to offer prescriptions for re-railing the economy left in a mess by the UPA on various television channels, particularly on his favourite channel which is financially bound hand and foot to the same corporate house which had rented Shourie’s well-appointed bungalow in New Delhi while he occupied it.

As for Sinha, the former bureaucrat-turned-politician was not yet ready to retire. He clearly expected a role for himself, though he had vacated his parliamentary seat for his son, Jayant, who is now a member of the Modi ministry, Sinha Sr. was so peeved that he asked Modi whether he considered all 75-year-olds brain-dead since that was the cut-off age for one to join his cabinet. Over time, Sinha dropped the pretence of being a BJP member and openly attacked the government. Now there is some talk that the AAP might field him from the New Delhi parliamentary constituency in 2019.

Senior advocate Prashant Bhushan is an enigmatic person. He has successfully waged many a PIL battle gratis for ordinary citizens. Yet, he has helped himself to a lot of money as well using the same instrument of PILs for purely commercial interests. The public persona of Prashant Bhushan is often at variance with his grubby ways. His joining Shourie and Sinha, the spurned suitors of Modi, is therefore not surprising. He is always in search of a cause which can bolster his self-image as a crusader for transparency --- though not in his own profession where the smell of money, licit and illicit, pervades the corridors of justice.

Having got the motivations of the gents shouting scam in the Rafale deal behind us, let us come to the government response. There is no denying that the official side has been rather niggardly in offering basic information. Without even remotely suggesting any bribes or commissions, the customary staple of all defence deals by successive Congress governments since the early 80s, the Modi Government has not been forthcoming in leveling with the people. In the interest of transparency, it should lay all its cards on the table. It is a done deal now. The people have a right to know why the earlier and long-delayed order for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft was pared down to 36 aircraft. Two, the actual cost to the exchequer of the bare-shell and the fully-loaded aircraft needs to be disclosed, especially when the French have no objection. Three, how and why Dassault zeroed in on Anil Ambani’s newly-minted Reliance Defence as its India partner for fulfilling its offsets obligation.

There being no financial malpractice, it is an intelligent guess that where the Prime Minister might have erred is in short-circuiting laid-down and time-consuming procedures to push the deal on the eve of his departure for an official visit to France in 2015. That a better price was negotiated for the fully loaded fighter aircraft too does not seem to be in question. As for the selection of Anil Ambani’s company as offsets partner, it is clear Dassault was keen to appoint a notable business house for the key job.

The above conclusion is supported by a recent report in a large-selling financial daily which revealed that the French armaments-maker had shortlisted a couple of prominent business houses for discharging its offsets obligations. In 2007, their first preference was the Tatas, which had already been snapped up by the US aircraft manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, a strong contender for the same Indian order for the combat aircraft. In fact, it is remarkable that Rahul first began muttering Rafale upon his much-publicized visit to the US.

Next they talked to Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance which after protracted negotiations took a strategic decision not to enter the defence sector. And finally they approached Mukesh’s younger brother Anil and signed up the latter’s newly- created company for the offsets business. The important thing to remember here is that it is for the successful bidder, in this case, Dassault Aviation, to decide who should be its offsets partner, the government can have no say in it.

Interestingly, the well-researched report in the economic daily lists the likely additional motive for Rahul Gandhi to attack Modi on Rafale. It seems brother-in-law Robert Vadra’s business associate, the notorious fixer, Sanjay Bhandari, was keen on partnering Dassault for offsets. He did not find favour with them despite the pressures he brought to bear on the French firm.

Maybe the French had done their homework, finding out about the fishy background of Bhandari. Last year Bhandari’s businesses were raided. A diary revealed some of the payments he had made to various people. Bhandari’s proximity to Vadra also found mention in papers when it came out that he had picked up the bill for the prohibitively expensive interior decoration and maintenance works carried out in a swanky London flat allegedly owned `benami’ by Vadra. Once the heat got to Bhandari, he fled to London in February last year. Since then he has evaded the summons from the investigative authorities.

However, even if there are no bribes in the deal, the government owes it to itself to still the controversy once for all by laying all its cards on the table. People must be told in the clearest possible terms the terms and conditions of the purchase agreement. So that the careerist town criers such as Shourie and Sinha are rendered speechless --- that is, until they latch on to some other brick and stone to throw at the Modi Government which was unwise, in the first place, not to have found some work for them.

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Ways of a charlatan

So, they have flung aside yet another of their thundering commitments. No longer would the great revolutionary Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party list the names of donors on the party’s website. We are not surprised. Already facing flak from the Election Commission for falsifying donations, they cannot afford to take any risk with fishy donations swelling their coffers, can they? Another nail in the coffin of that much touted transparency. We have already believed that the AAP Supremo is a charlatan out to hoodwink people. He promised not to live in a large house; he does. He promised not to surround himself with scores of security personnel. He does. He promised not to move around in a convoy of dozen of vehicles. He now does. As for corruption, well… let’s save it for some other day.