With the elections approaching, the two national party rivals, change their weapons, shift the venues and seem locked in a suicidal combat mode. And the latest weapon they have chosen is the Rafale combat aircraft deal with the French consortium of Dassault Aviation and the ‘production terms’ of the deal.
The main opposition Congress has accused the Union Defence Minister of trying to tarnish the image of the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited for dropping it from the deal, while the Minister, Mrs. Nirmala Sitharaman, said the dropping was done during previous Congress-led UPA government itself.
She also indicated that her government would not agree to their demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the deal. And she a quoted a precedent that when the controversy over the Bofors deal broke out over 30 years ago, the Congress also did not agree on a JPC enquiry that the opposition BJP had then demanded. Congress did constitute the JPC and summoned the senior officials of Bofors to give evidence.
Mrs. Sitaraman recalled that even during the UPA regime ‘HAL and Dassault could not agree on production terms and, as a result, HAL and Rafale could not go together. Doesn’t that clearly say who did not go together with HAL and under which government it happened?’ So, she said, to be repeatedly told ‘you have not taken care of HAL’ is misplaced.’
She continued, ‘Is it not obvious that the interest of HAL could have been taken care of even during that time. Neither the interest of HAL nor the interests of the Indian Air Force were taken care of. All these attributes that are being put to us about HAL…it’s not for us, but for the UPA to answer as to why the agreement did not happen.’
Now with Antony levelling the charges, that the Narendra Modi government had compromised national security by reducing the number of jets to 36, Mrs. Sitharaman said: ‘He (Mr. Antony) has done the negotiations, so he knows how they go. These are not over-the-counter purchases… Orders have to be placed, and then they have to be manufactured. There is a timeline.’
Mrs. Sitharaman said the government has already responded to the questions raised, but the Congress was trying to shift the goal-post now. Although the ideal squadron strength is 42, it was reduced to 33 during the UPA’s time.
On not agreeing to a JPC probe, Mrs. Sitharaman said, ‘The government has responded to the issues raised, including about the price of the basic aircraft, in Parliament. It was our duty to ensure that. The price you (UPA) obtained for a basic aircraft when compared with the intergovernmental agreement that we have done, it is 9 per cent cheaper.’
The Congress is set to approach the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) on the matter, and the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) later and had asked why the government was purchasing only 36 jets instead of 126, if it was procuring the aircraft at a lower price than the one negotiated by the UPA government.
Antony wanted the government to publish the cost of the UPA’s deal for 126 aircraft and the 36-aircraft deal entered into by the Modi Government.
‘Why is the government afraid when it will have a majority in the JPC… that means they have something to hide,’ Mr. Antony said. ‘Who authorised Prime Minister to bring down the number of fighter aircraft from 126 to 36.'
P Chidambaram also chipped in and said that Parliament, and not court, was the right forum to take up the Rafale deal in which his party has alleged a major scam. The former Union Home Minister said the Rafale deal should not be compared with the Bofors case as there was no corruption in the purchase of Bofors guns from Sweden in 1980s.
Asked whether the Rafale deal ‘scam’ was on the lines of the Bofors scandal, Mr. Chidambaram said, ‘Bofors was not a scam. There is a judgement of Justice J D Kapoor of the Delhi High Court which conclusively finds that there was no corruption or scam in the Bofors deal. So please do not compare Rafale with the Bofors deal. Bofors (scam) was a figment of imagination of the late prime minister V P Singh.’
Figment of imagination or not that controversy broke out and finally brought down the Rajiv Gandhi Government.
That was a terrific year, 1987, when the Bofors scam broke out, when Giani Zail Singh tried to overthrow the government, when the Ambani and Nusli Wadia rivalry was at its height, when Arun Singh and Amitabh Bachchan left Rajiv’s coterie, and the combative Arun Shourie made a second coming to the Indian Express.