Is Today’s Supreme Court Verdict the End of the #RafaleDeal Controversy?

Politics

Is Today’s Supreme Court Verdict the End of the #RafaleDeal Controversy?

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

After being thoroughly routed in this month’s state assembly elections, the BJP finally has a reason to celebrate – aside, of course, from the entertainment tax generated by Beyoncé’s performance at the Ambani wedding. The Supreme Court has today declared that they refuse to conduct an investigation into the notorious Rafale aircraft deal, striking down a series of PILs and petitions pertaining to the issue.

For months, opposition leaders have shouted that the BJP, flying in the face of their platform of transparency and supposed anti-corruption credentials, engaged in crony capitalism with French Rafale jet manufacturer, Dassault Aviation, and Anil Ambani’s Reliance Naval and Engineering. Congress leader RaGa has been vocal about the BJP’s nefariousness in the lead-up to elections, accusing “chowkidar” PM Modi of being a chor, and several politicians and public interest lawyers, including Arun Shourie, Yashwant Sinha, and Prashant Bhushan, have added their voices to the clamour.

What’s the big deal with Rafale, which was originally a UPA endeavour, anyway? Back in 2012, PM Manmohan Singh’s administration was trying to broker an agreement to procure 126 Rafale fighter jets for the IAF – sourcing 18 jets directly from Dassault, while Hindustan Aeronautics Limited would produce the remaining 108 in India.

But the Modi government, taking over the UPA portfolio in 2015, had other ideas. They instead doubled up, buying 36 jets from Dassault, and included conditions that Dassault must invest 50 per cent of the 58,000 cr contract’s value in Indian companies, causing Dassault to partner up with Reliance Naval and Engineering to manufacture the jets.

This led to one of the allegations in the Rafale PILs that the government, known for its close ties with the Ambanis, influenced Dassault to invest in Reliance. Ex-French PM Francois Hollande denied knowledge of any alleged coercion, stating that only Dassault could choose which Indian companies they would invest in. The PILs also claimed that the BJP contract was significantly more expensive than the UPA’s for a smaller number of jets, and suggested that dirty dealings were the reason – a charge that has been similarly denied by both the French government, and Dassault CEO Eric Trappier.

But today, a three-judge bench, led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, unanimously concluded that it was outside the Court’s purview to examine the business of the government with regard to Rafale. Of the three major claims against the Centre in the PILs – that the contract decision-making was biased, the pricing suspect, and the procurement procedure shrouded in secrecy – the SC did not entertain a single one.

Still, the SC’s verdict is not necessarily as cut-and-dried as it appears. The trickiest aspect of the controversy, reflected in the statement from the bench, is that the Rafale deal is an intergovernmental military matter.

This blanket dismissal of the allegations is a huge victory for the BJP, who can ill afford another scandal when their stock is pretty low with the public at the moment. Even better, the ruling has given them powerful ammunition for 2019: They can not only bring up the many scams that took place under Congress without looking like hypocrites, but can also leverage their position as victims of a malicious smear campaign. Already, BJP spokesman Raman Malik is referring to this as a “vindication” that Rafale was in the interest of India, while Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has insisted the case is “fiction writing”. Ambani, who previously threatened to sue Congress for defamation, has called the allegations baseless and politically motivated.

Still, the SC’s verdict is not necessarily as cut-and-dried as it appears. The trickiest aspect of the controversy, reflected in the statement from the bench, is that the Rafale deal is an intergovernmental military matter. As such, even the broader strokes of the contract are not in the public record, despite calls from the Opposition to release the details. The procedure that was followed to strike the deal is no more clear today than it was in 2015, and the questions over its budget remain unanswered. Especially since the contract also stipulates special modifications to the fighter jets, the SC has said it is beyond their scope to judge minutiae of pricing.

Rather than giving an outright clean chit to the government, the SC has stated that it cannot interfere in private government and military matters, and that they find nothing immediately suspicious to investigate in the Rafale deal. They specifically point out that the petitions’ appeals to Article 32, which ensures that the SC will protect citizens’ fundamental rights, have been dismissed. In short, the SC has found that the government is within its rights to formulate a deal however they please – not quite the same thing as pronouncing the Rafale deal totally kosher.

And it’s this distinction that Bhushan, one of the key petitioners in the case, has honed in on. He, and other Rafale detractors, are insisting that they will file a review. RaGa, meanwhile, is still demanding to know why the cost of the jets has apparently tripled, from 526 cr per aircraft to 1,600 cr under the BJP deal. Whether or not their efforts will be fruitful, is another matter. One thing’s for sure, though: The Centre might rejoice today, but they haven’t yet seen the last of Rafale.

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