The Supreme Court has adjourned for judgement on the question whether there should be an enquiry under the court's supervision on the complaints regarding Rafale jets. Although the allegations included different aspects of the deal, the court has made it clear that for now the matter under review is only the procedures followed in concluding the deal.
The price of the fighter aircraft has been subjected to serious allegations, but the court has decided not to consider that aspect at this stage. Even if the procedural aspects are concerned, given that the deal covers several serious dimensions, there is a widespread perception that a convincing enquiry and explanation are inevitable. The bases for the complaints regarding procedures are the cancellation of the contract signed by the Manmohan Singh government, and the signing of a new contract containing unfavourable provisions as also the induction of Reliance in the deal.
The plea made before the court by two ministers of the erstwhile BJP ministry under Vajpayee, Arun Shourie and Yeshwant Sinha, and senior lawyer Pradshant Bhushan is for a thorough probe into the Rafale deal under the supervision of the Supreme Court. And that is the decision awaited from the court. Although the court has said that for now it is not considering it, suspicions about the price are not minor. The Central Government which at first argued that all price information is confidential and that disclosing them would be detrimental to national security, later submitted the price file in a sealed envelope when the courted ordered that. In fact it is questionable whether even the price fixation and the numbers are that much confidential in nature, especially when there is no binding, including for Dassault Aviation, to keep it confidential. The contention put forward was that if the price is made public, enemies would be able to figure out its technical capability. But this is a baseless argument.
For, in the document prepared prior to the invitation of interest from the manufacturers - Request for Proposal (Request for Proposal – RFP) - all such details were made public. Even as the Centre maintains confidentialilty in relation to its price, the annual report of Dassault Aviation itself contains the fact that the contract was concluded at a price far higher than that in the cancelled contract. And the government had informed parliament that the price per aircraft to be purchased from Rafale would be Rs 670 crore. But the price for 36 aircraft mentioned in Dassault's annual report is Rs 60,000 crore. Although the court is not looking into the price factor while reviewing the allegations about the deal, the contradictions and doubts that have come out are not insignificant. Clearing those doubts would in any case be helpful for national interest and the morale of the forces.
The changes made to the details of the deal are immaerial either. The complaint is not only that the price concluded with Dassault Aviation is higher; there was also an added condition that Anil Ambani's firm should be made a partner. The contention is that here also national interest was forsaken. For, in the annulled contract, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) was the partner. It was by removing HAL - which had experience in aircraft manufacture - all of a sudden that Ambani's Reliance was brought in its place. Thus, the alleged irregularities in procedures are in addition to the big difference in price and the change in the contract partner. It was after a comprehensive review of air force's requirements that the previous government had concluded a contract for supply of 126 aircraft. It is a grave allegation that the current government not only reduced the number of aircraft to 36, but did not consider the needs of air force either. There is also a complaint that when the Supreme Court summoned air force's officials and asked questions, the asnwers were not satisfactory. In the process, we also witnessed an unusual act of air force officials themselves explaining matters to the media directly.
The Rafale case involves several basic values including national security, elimination of corruption and transparency in governance. The accusations are that actions were taken without the knowledge of those right from defence minister down to the air force. When the court has adjourned the case for its decision, the interview itself by Dassault CEO Eric Trapierre has to be seen as a planned exercise. It is indeed a handicap that there is no independent agency with the competence, power and status to enquire about such a crucial matter. The aone gency that can enquire is CBI – but that itself is under the shadow of allegations. Not only that, the CBI falls under the central government. In such a situation, the court's decision regarding an enquiry with the court's supervision is highly important with far-reaching consequences – a decision the country is waiting to hear.