As the five year term of Modi government draws to a close in 2019 which is preceded by crucial assembly elections in three BJP held states of Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, the relative calm that prevailed in the initial years of his regime has been replaced by palpable disquiet with string of contentious issues coming to fore lately, undermining the governments closely guarded clean image and busting the myth that country’s state of affairs is hunky-dory.
The dalliance over Rafael deal in a bid a to keep the cards close to the chest so that the smoke screen doesn’t dissipate giving a glimpse of the real intent in adopting circuitous ways in finalizing the contract, has dragged the government before an apex court for an inquisition against charges by the opposition party of an alleged scam. Now that Supreme Court is ceased of the matter, having received the pricing information in sealed cover along with requisite details pertaining to procedural norms complied with leading up to signing the agreement and has reserved judgement, the sequence of events that ensued in the acquisition of these fighter jets still remain cryptic, pointing towards crony capitalism.
The fact that Reliance Defence Limited was registered 12 days (March 28, 2015) prior to announcement of New Rafael deal by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on April 10, 2015 gives an inkling about male fide designs in propping this company with no expertise in Defence manufacturing which eventually ends up being one of the chosen offset partners by Dassault. Interestingly, the government proceeded to cancel the original tender for purchase of 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft only on June 24, 2015. Thereafter, a memorandum of understanding on the purchase of Rafael jets was signed on January 26, 2016 when French President François Hollande visited India on the occasion of Republic Day and the deal for 36 Rafael jets for Euro 7.87 billion (approximately Rs 59,000 crores) was finally sealed on 23 September 2016. Subsequently, Anil Ambani’s RDL and Dassault Aviation announced a joint venture (Dassault Reliance Aerospace Ltd) in February 2017. Under the contract, Dassault was mandated to make compensation investments (offsets) in India worth 50% of the value of purchase. Another intriguing aspect is the amendment to offset guidelines made by Ministry of Defence in August 2015 that allowed the foreign vendor to give details of its offset partner at a date later than contract signing date, and this was being used a veil by Defence Minister to feign ignorance about offset partners in the Rafael deal. But this excuse fell through as “the Air Force headquarters confirmed in response to an RTI by Caravan that the inter-governmental deal and the offset contract between Dassault and the government of India were both signed on the same day — 23 September 2016” as per Caravan magazine’s cover story on the Rafael deal (September 2018).
The most recent transactional disclosure that Dassault Aviation had invested roughly 40 million Euros in Reliance Airport Developers Ltd resulting in Rs 284 Crore profit to the firm casts a shadow of serious financial impropriety and implicates Modi Government further in this murky deal. Another trivia being, this company is not the same one that Dassault had formed a joint venture with. Going back in time to gain a better perspective, Maharashtra Government in an Auction had leased 603 hectares of land for 70 years valued at Rs 63 crore to Reliance Airport Developers Ltd being highest bidders for development of five local Airports in 2009. For lack of progress in this project during next six years, the BJP led Government in Maharashtra in 2015 decided to take the assets back. Astonishingly, upon receipt of application for land allotment in July 2015, the same agency (Maharashtra Airport Development Council) allotted another parcel of land (289 acres allotted by Government, but the company took only 104 acres) at Special Economic Zone in Mihan, Nagpur in August 2015 to another group company of Anil Ambani named Reliance Aerostructre Ltd which is a partner with Dassault in the Joint Venture. Reliance Airport Developers Ltd had reported losses for financial year 2016 and 2017 and despite being in red, its parent company Reliance Infrastructure then sold its shares at a huge premium to Dassault. The rationale behind picking up 34.7% equity participation in a non-operational company defies all logic. The timeline in Rafael deal and inexplicable reason for Dassault to team up with Reliance Defence is reminiscent of a ploy that team Modi has bungled to make incontrovertible.
The subterfuge deployed by the current dispensation does not stay put with Rafael deal and has pervaded the revered democratic institutions, hampering the credibility of pillars of democracy. This was witnessed in an unprecedented move by four senior judges of the Supreme Court who in an uprising against Chief Justice Dipak Misra held a press conference to express their anguish about the problems afflicting the country’ highest court. Allocation of cases having sweeping consequences by the CJI, being a master of roster, to selective benches of preference led to mistrust between the CJI and other four senior-most judges. They pointed to the assignment of CBI judge Loya’s mysterious death case (who was hearing the sensitive Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter case) to a three-judge bench led by CJI Dipak Misra himself. The chief justice was alleged to be clearly working under the government’s pressure.
On the other hand, the premier investigating agency (CBI) is under a cloud for the long-running feud between the Central Bureau of Investigation top boss Alok Verma and Rakesh Asthana, the special director. Alok Verma has accused Rakesh Asthana of accepting bribes and Asthana on his part had accused Verma of political favouritism and impeding the functioning of officers who are investigating corruption. The Central Bureau of Investigation had raided its own office in Delhi and the Centre stepped in to put the two warring officers on leave and appointed M Nageshwar Rao the interim director. This episode has raised serious questions about the integrity of CBI and could have damning diplomatic ramifications at a time when India is pressing for extradition of Vijay Mallaya, Norav Modi and Mehul Choksi.
Another disconcerting aspect of this regime that has kept the minorities on tenterhooks is an attempt to create a cultural divide by trying to promulgate the idea of Hindu Rashtra. Ever since the BJP took over power in 2014, there were a series of desecration of churches and attacks on Christian missionaries on the pretext of forced religious conversions to the effect that anti-conversion laws in the BJP ruled states have been enforced to target Christians which is against the very tenets of Indian constitution. Not to forget the very horrendous phenomena of lynching of Muslims by Hindutva forces, be it Mohammad Akhlaq-lynched for possessing cooked meat, Pehlu Khan or Rakbar Khan killed in Rajasthan, that passes under the guise of cow vigilantism, has led to a very toxic social environment in the country. Evidently, it is difficult to envisage such incidents without the support and protection from local politicians and the state.
As I write this piece, the Congress party has sprung a surprise with a mini resurgence of sorts by forming a Government in three states of Hindi Heartland. Will this victory translate into increasing a sizeable number of Lok Sabha seats for the party is the big question, as political analysts credit anti-incumbency, farmers distress and economic hardships faced by masses owing to demonetization and ill timed implementation of GST, for Congress’ triumph. Despite the jolt in assembly elections, the BJP is feeling buoyant about its prospects in 2019 as it is going to be direct face off between Modi and Rahul Gandhi much like in a presidential democracy where Modi’s popularity though on a marginal decline is still significantly high to catapult him to another five year term as Prime Minister.
The recent pronouncement by Supreme Court on the most harangued Rafael issue that opposition piled on Modi, stating there is no further investigation required in the matter and citing jurisdictional limitations over pricing of Rafael deal, has given a fresh lease of life to BJP. Extradition of Christian Michel in an attempt to implicate congress in Augusta Westland kickbacks and impending success in bringing back Mehul Choki and Vijay Mallya would give Modi enough arsenal to further mount a vociferous attack on Rahul Gandhi.
But it would be a fallacy to assume that Supreme Court judgement on Rafael with factual inaccuracies and no pertinent answers to the petitioner’s questions on procedural lapses (done post facto), pricing issue, selection of offset partners will deter the opposition from demanding a joint parliamentary committee probe to dig up the truth. BJP must take a cue from their recent reversals in MP, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh that criticism of Rahul Gandhi, lack of transparency (in Rafael deal) and polarizing the electorate does not always cover up mediocre track record of governance and yield political dividends.