SC Demands Clarification on Rafale

The Indian Supreme Court asked for clarification on the Rafale Deal. The details so sought would not cover the pricing or the suitability of the equipment for the Indian Airforce.

Background

In 2007, the Indian Air Force advanced a proposal to buy 126 fighter aircraft. The IAF has a strength of 34 squadrons in total but hoped to acquire a total of 42 combat squadrons by 2032 in order to meet the contingencies of a two-front war.

In April 2015, the Indian government announced the deal to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets from France, about three years after the previous government decided to purchase 126 Rafale fighter jets, 108 of which were to be made in India by HAL. The Rafale fighter is a twin-engine Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft manufactured by French aerospace company Dassault Aviation.

The deal has stirred controversy across the country; the opposition and past petitioners to the Supreme Court have claimed that the government bought the jets at an inflated price and benefitted Reliance Defence at the expense of state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).

In a hearing today, the supreme court demanded clarification on the deal.

Analysis

A three-member bench heard the PIL filed by lawyer Vineet Dhanda, who sought a direction to the Centre to reveal details of the deal and the comparative prices negotiated by both governments in a sealed cover to the apex court.

The petition seeks information about the contract given to Reliance by Dassault. The petition terms the allegations against the deal “frivolous”, and states that “critics in the opposition parties have adopted a profligate way to criticise the Prime Minister" and that this sort of criticism will send a “wrong signal about India to the world”, making it necessary to clear the air regarding the deal.

Advocate M L Sharma’s plea, filed earlier, alleging discrepancies in the fighter jet deal with France will also come up for hearing today. Sharma insisted that the inter-government agreement to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets was not ratified by Parliament. Sharma’s PIL is similar to one filed in March by Congress leader Tehseen S Poonawalla, who sought information on why the Union Cabinet’s approval was not sought as part of the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) before signing the procurement deal with France on September 23, 2016.

The three-member bench hearing today’s case expressed its wish to be apprised by the government of India of the steps in the decision-making process followed in the controversial procurement of the 36 Rafale fighter jets from France. The bench, however, clarified that the details so sought would not cover the pricing or the suitability of the equipment for the Indian Airforce, bearing in mind the sensitive nature of the matter. It has requested that this information is delivered in a sealed cover by 29 October.

Counterpoint

The opposition has maintained that the government bought the jets at an inflated price of Rs 59,000 crore, alleging that they paid Rs 1,670 crore per aircraft while the UPA government had negotiated a price of Rs 570 crore.

The UPA’s terms accounted for India specific enhancements, such as the ability to take off from high-altitude stations such as Leh and an enhanced infrared search and track sensor.

Critics argue that the 36 jets should have been cheaper since they were being bought off the shelf. The government has anticipated this counter and has said that not only are the jets negotiated by it cheaper, but they also come armed with cutting-edge weapons and have been made more efficient with a performance guarantee clause.

Assessment

Our assessment is that in the interests of national security, it is not always possible for a government to disclose every detail of its defence procurement to the general public.

However, transparency and trust within the parliament are essential, and the guidelines put in place for defence procurement procedures must be adhered to; the supreme court’s decision to look into this aspect was sound.

We feel it is also important to address the fundamental issue of developing indigenous capability by acquiring advanced technology and jump-start production to established Indian defence establishment. We also believe that foreign companies are motivated to part some technology, perhaps for a price when there is a firm business consideration.