Shekhar Gupta: Modi's slipping on the Rafale slope

The latest expose on Rafale in The Hindu by N Ram, and subsequent disclosures by the government in its defence, have helped greatly to take the debate forward. The net impact, at this juncture, is what has been clear about the Rafale deal — that it’s a self-inflicted scam of arrogance and stupidity — and it is now confirmed. What was murky, however, gets murkier.

Here is what we now have clarity on:
  • The defence ministry bureaucracy under Manohar Parrikar was uneasy or insecure about how they thought the negotiation was being railroaded. They put their objections on record.
  • The objections were over-ruled by the defence minister as “over-reaction” and the officers were told to proceed in consultation with PS (probably principal secretary) to the PM.
  • What this means is that the political leadership, at the very top, dismissed bureaucratic objections. They wanted the deal to be done, quickly.
  • In principle, this was fine. It is in the nature of bureaucracies to raise doubts, and a decisive political leader can over-ride objections and take responsibility for the decision.
So far so good. And hereon we run into a problem. If indeed what is stated in the four points listed above is all there is to the deal, that as usual bureaucrats were covering their tracks and a tough, nationalist and honest government tossed their roadblocks aside, then why has the same brave government been so shy of stating so upfront?

Why hide behind serial excuses: Secrecy on price, add-ons and India-specific enhancements (ISEs), bilateral commitment to non-disclosure, HAL isn’t good enough, sovereign guarantee, which turned out to be a letter of comfort, the Supreme Court has cleared the deal, wait for the comptroller and auditor general report, and, worst of all, that the negotiation was conducted routinely as mandated under the set defence acquisition procedures.

If the government had simply stated the truth early on, probably it might have escaped a potential full-scale defence scam leading up to general elections.

That “truth” could be something like this: Rafale was chosen as L1 (lowest bidder) in early 2012 for 126 aircraft when the UPA was in power, but three members of that 14-member price negotiation committee made (mostly flimsy) objections.

That A K Antony, as defence minister, set up a committee to examine these, and then appointed another group of three outside “monitors” to further oversee the process. This was followed by a full meeting of the 14-member committee, which dismissed the three objections, one of which was something like this: The European EADS Eurofighter (the only other contender) had submitted its offer in a more proper format compared to Dassault for Rafale.

A committee sat over another committee which was watched by yet another committee and the 126-aircraft deal was finally green-flagged. Then what happened? 

Illustration by Binay Sinha
As usual, Mr Antony still got cold feet and decided to defer the decision and even suggested calling for bids again. This deal, remember, was initiated in 2001 under the Vajpayee government. Mr Antony was still inclined to leave it to the next government. His minimalist brief was to conclude his tenure without a defence purchase scam, not particularly to rearm his forces. He kept one part of the deal, not buying very much, but still ended up with the Augusta Westland scam.

So what did “our” decisive, uncompromising Modi government do? It trashed the junk. The IAF couldn’t wait forever. So what if it didn’t follow some procedure! These are mere executive norms and not constitutionally mandated. So, the chief executive, in this case, the prime minister, can always side-step these in the larger national interest.

The important question is: Why did the Modi government not make this full disclosure? If only it had done so, every new revelation to have made headlines over the past six months would have been pre-empted and rendered irrelevant.

All the hurt and outrage that the defence minister has had to flaunt on cameras and in parliament would not have been needed then. After all, even as she made a pretty good defence of the deal, laden with impressive facts and references, remember the one question Rahul Gandhi repeatedly asked her but she wouldn’t answer?

It was, simply, madam defence minister, tell us: Did the defence ministry raise objections to the deal or not? If she had answered truthfully: That, yes, it did, which is routine, but the government overruled them in its wisdom, the story may not have come this far.

There are generally two reasons why governments do not do simple things like just coming clean. One, if their conscience is not clear because they probably are hiding more and believe the critics will not find out. And second, if they are so self-righteously arrogant and contemptuous of their opponents that they deign it below their dignity to answer any questions. How dare you even ask me? Do you think I could also be corrupt like you? This is the downward Rafale slope the Modi government is slipping on.

As an analyst and an editorialist, I would still look for more evidence to make the first of the two conclusions, that the government has a bad conscience with something awful, like a kickback, to hide. The opposition has no reason to be so patient. And the second conclusion is now clear beyond doubt.

We’ve seen this drama play out twice in the past three decades, with contrary results. Bofors was the first. If Rajiv Gandhi’s conscience was clear, he could have nipped the scam on day one by ordering a sincere probe and promising punishment to the guilty. But he went from one blunder to another, finally setting up a Joint Parliamentary Committee but stage-managing it so brazenly that he was looking insincere and guilty even before the Swiss account details had surfaced. He killed his own case on Bofors when he declared in parliament that neither he, nor any member of his family had taken any kickbacks in the deal.

The corollary was obvious: Alright, you are clean but if someone else did, don’t you owe it to your country to conduct a proper, fair and vigorous probe and catch them? The Congress can say that 32 years hence nobody has been caught for Bofors commissions. Not even one kroner is recovered. But nor has the party’s reputation. The Bofors taint remains, never mind the Delhi High Court discharge.

The second, the Sukhoi-30 purchase had mega-scam written all over it. The deal was signed and a large advance paid by P V Narasimha Rao’s government even after the 1996 elections had been declared. There was very little procedure followed and if you applied today’s norms, it would have been called a crime on the nation. But he responded by taking his opposition (and favourites in the elections) BJP leaders in confidence. Later, Mulayam Singh Yadav, as Deve Gowda’s defence minister, opened all the files to top opposition leaders and came clean. We have recorded that story of brilliant political jointmanship before. There’s never been a question about Sukhoi since, and 23 years later, it is still the IAF’s mainstay and about half its frontline strength.

You can see which playbook the Modi government is reading from. If it thinks Narendra Modi’s titanium reputation will enable him to ride this out with a mix of self-righteous outrage and victimhood, they may be mistaken. Because, contrary to conventional wisdom that this government is so brilliant at keeping its secrets, the Rafale papers are freely floating in murky Lutyens’ winds now. Even at this stage, the government can issue something like a white paper and answer questions from critics and journalists instead of scolding them. If they don’t, Rafale won’t be shaken off their tails so easily now.
By Special Arrangement with ThePrint

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