The Congress’s desperation to smell scams supposedly happening in the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party-led Government’s tenure is understandable, but it must match its olfactory sense with a hard material. Because scams should be there to see, or at least credibly perceived to be seen. The Congress has for some weeks now going on and on about irregularities in the Centre’s 2015 decision to purchase Rafale fighter aircraft from Dassault of France through an inter-governmental deal. Accordingly, India decided to buy 36 of them off-the-shelf for roughly Rs 58,000 crore. The agreement replaced an earlier plan by the Congress-led UPA regime to buy 18 in a similar fashion and build in collaboration with the French another 108 at the state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited in Bengaluru.
The basic premise of the Congress’s criticism is that the inter-governmental deal is non-transparent, not cost-effective, and a blow to indigenous manufacturing. The Government has responded that there was a pressing need for the Indian Air Force, whose squadrons are depleted, to get the aircraft at the earliest. This does not foreclose the prospect for indigenous manufacture because more aircraft in the genre are to be had and the local manufacture route (with collaboration from foreign and private players) can still be thus adopted. The Congress’s claim that there is a conspiracy because the Government refuses to share with the people the details of costing etc, is dismissible because critical details in defence deals are not made public for apparent security reasons. Congress regimes in the past too had not exposed such material to the public. The ‘secrecy’ makes sense because once you begin giving details of cost, everything else including the technicalities, the upgrades that India seeks etc, will tumble out.
Since Congress president Rahul Gandhi has taken the lead, misguided perhaps by his advisers, even those in the party who know better, have been compelled to create a din over the matter. Instead, the party should respond to Minister for Defence Nirmala Sitharaman’s statement that the price had been revised upward by 300 percent during negotiations in the UPA rule. Some controversy had erupted way back when Rafale emerged as the front-runner, with some experts saying it was not the best aircraft for India. But then, equally, there were others who believed to the contrary. That is now past, and the Rafale is no pushover in any case.