Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr is a Delhi-based journalist, who’s worked with Indian Express in multiple editions, and with DNA in Delhi. He has also written for Deccan Herald, Times of India, Gulf News (Dubai), Daily Star (Beirut) and Today (Singapore). He is now Senior Editor with Parliamentarian
It was a cheerful December Friday for a party that was crestfallen.
The three-judge Supreme Court Bench led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi dismissed three Public Interest Litigation (PILs) accusing the Modi government of breaking rules and favouring a private corporation in the purchase of the French medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCS) Rafale from Dassault Aviation. One of three petitions was filed by Prashant Bhushan and two former BJP ministers, Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie.
It came as a relief to the Bharatiya Janata Party, which had lost the assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh to the Congress on December 11. The ruling party, which prided itself in ruling large parts of the country, was indeed browbeaten, and the BJP leaders went silent. On Friday, December 14, 2018, within hours after the Supreme Court judgment became public, the combative BJP president Amit Shah called for a press conference at 1 pm at the party headquarters in New Delhi, and he read out parts of the judgment which exonerated the Modi government of any wrong-doing in the controversial defense deal.
Shah advised Congress president Rahul Gandhi not to base his campaign on “white lies” for “temporary advantage” and he said that “lies have no legs”. He went on to pose some key questions to Gandhi. The BJP president wanted to know as to who was the source of Gandhi’s information about the allegations he (Gandhi) made on the deal? He asked Gandhi: “Why did you not finalise the deal from 2007 to 2014?” He said that Gandhi should reveal his source. He advised Gandhi “to avoid childish allegations”.
He clarified that the 36 fighter planes that Prime Minister Modi purchased in April 2015 on his visit to France “will be made in France” and not in Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) or by the Ambanis. Shah tied himself up in a knot when he said that the Rafale deal was a government-to-government deal, and asked Gandhi: “Why did you not do government-to-government deal?” He had completely forgotten, or may be his freshly minted bravado had erased that crucial fact, that India was buying the Rafale fighter jets from a private manufacturer and that the French government has nothing to do with it.
And Shah said that he would answer questions to BJP’s poll defeat in the three states – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh – in a separate press conference, which he promised to call soon. He hoped that the media would carry the message of the Supreme Court verdict clearing the Modi government and the report would be taken to the people.
At 4 pm on the same day, Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley spoke for the BJP-led NDA government of Modi on the same issue. Sitharaman quoted from the court judgment - as had Shah - to show that there was no wrong-doing of any kind in the Rafale deal. Jaitley too framed the issue as one between “truth and falsehood”. He too wanted to know “why the deal was stopped if not abandoned” under the UPA, and why time was lost between 2009 and 2014.
He said that the non-weaponised aircraft was nine per cent cheaper and the weaponised aircraft 20 per cent cheaper in terms of 2016 prices. He also said that the off-set policy was decided in 2005 and the Congress “cannot taint the off-set-mechanism” by which a private sector Indian player was to be involved in defense production.
But the court’s faux pas about the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report being submitted to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) when it was not, has indeed created a flutter which the government and the party tried to gloss over. But it raised eyebrows about what has been described as a ‘typing error’. When I asked Shah, and again Sitharaman and Jaitley, whether the Modi government was not clear about meeting the total requirement of the Indian Air Force of 126 fighter jets, and that in its whole term, the government has made a deal only for 36, Shah assured that the IAF’s needs will be met and it takes time.
Sitharaman and Jaitley denied that there was any tardiness in getting the remaining 90 aircrafts, though there was no clarity as to what was being done about it.