The other day, Congress president Rahul Gandhi cryptically said, “The Prime Minister of India is corrupt.” He said it with such glee that one would think he was referring to the head of Government of an enemy nation. And why does he believe our Prime Minister is corrupt? Because, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had ‘robbed’ Rs 30,000 crore of potential income from the public sector unit, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and given it to one of his ‘favourite’ private players. Does he have any evidence to corroborate this very serious allegation? Well, there is this media organisation in France which has said two things: One, former French President Francois Hollande stated that the French firm, Dassault Aviation, which is to supply the Rafale fighter aircraft to India, had been pressured into choosing a particular Indian partner. Two, the media firm has documents to establish that the choice of this particular Indian partner had been part of the overall deal between India and France.
But Rahul Gandhi’s problem is not just the choice of the Indian partner and part of the offset clause, where the French company is mandated to tie up with an Indian firm for related production. It’s do with pricing as well. Of course, the Congress president has no precise idea about the final price of the 36 Rafale aircraft that India decided to purchase as part of a Government-to-Government deal with France in 2015. The pricing mechanism has not been made public, nor has the exact technical specification, in order to honour the agreement between the two nations which kept in mind the competition globally — both on the economic and the technological front. But Rahul Gandhi is still sure of his ‘facts’.
He smells a rat, and yet cannot identify the source of the stench in exact terms. Congress spokespersons have begun to call the Rafale deal, Prime Minister Modi’s ‘Bofors moment’, but fail to realise that they are inflicting wounds on themselves. The Bofors deal involved several private players, which has been extensively documented. So has been the role these entitled played, and the kickbacks involved too have been established. The matter went to the courts, investigations were conducted, and surmises based on hard material were drawn. If the Congress says Rafale is the BJP’s ‘Bofors’, then they are accepting that wrongdoing had been done in the Bofors case. But leave that aside for a moment. Where exactly has been the corruption in pricing? Given that it is a direct deal between two sovereign regimes, is Rahul Gandhi saying that the Governments of France and India had indulged in a corrupt deal. Since France had bagged the contract, did the then Hollande Government pay off the Modi regime?
Rahul Gandhi is on slippery ground here. And he slips further when he makes outlandish claims. Such as his remark that the incumbent French President had hinted to him about some issue with pricing. The French Government was prompt in denying it, leaving the Congress chief embarrassed. And so, Rahul Gandhi’s entire case rests on somehow spreading the word that Prime Minister Modi and his regime had played a role in persuading Dassault to choose a particular Indian firm — Reliance Defence, headed by Anil Ambani — as its offset partner. The allegation has been far from demonstrated as true, as both the French Government and Dassault have vehemently denied the reports. But so what? Accusation can be made without adequate documentation — and repeatedly enough, to begin sounding credible for the lager public! That is the strategy.
But there is a problem here. Various recent opinion poll surveys have shown that a vast majority of the people in States that are going to vote for new Assemblies, have not even heard of the Rafale deal. Now, the entire purpose of Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Modi is a thief, and is corrupt’ campaign is to gain political dividends, but this does not seem to be happening. Unfortunately for the Congress president, it has few takers in the country, even among those who are aware of the issue. It does not help matters for him that he himself is out on bail in a case where he stands accused of serious financial irregularities. And not just him, but the former Congress president a bunch of other senior Congress leaders too. With his own credibility thus seriously compromised, his hammer-and-tongs approach against Prime Minister Modi is finding far less traction that he might have hoped for.
The Congress, desperate not to let go of the issue, not so much because it finds flesh in it but more because it has nothing else in hand, is working round the clock. It has asked the Comptroller and Auditor General of India to look into the deal. It has demanded a probe by a Joint Parliamentary Committee. The desire to keep the matter burning has been such that the Congress president even decided to visit HAL and address its employees on how they were ‘cheated’ by the Modi regime. It’s not clear whether that interaction will happen as scheduled.