Ruffled feathers of Rafale deal- the peoples perspective

Dr VK Bahuguna

( Author is a retired civil servant)
The defense procurements have always been in the vortex of politics in India as the opposition parties always find chinks in the defense deals. All remember the Bofor Guns of Sweden which according to many experts won India Kargil with Pakistan but rocked the boat of Rajiv Gandhi government. Many Indian Politicians in opposition generally never bother for the security of the nation if he gets an opportunity of inciting public opinion for electoral benefits while smelling corruption in defense deals. To acquire power is the primary concern of the opposition politicians and for this reason the Congress had made a big hue and cry over the signing of government to government agreement between the France and India during April 2015 visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to France for purchase of 36 Rafale aircrafts at the cost of 7.8 million Euro which approximately would cost around Rs 58,000 crore. The Congress President had directly blamed the Prime Minister for indulging in '"crony capitalism' and the entire party is in hyper mode to garner public opinion on this matter and the party had also filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Supreme Court which came up for hearing on 10th October. The Court has sought details of the decision making process that resulted in award of  Rafale Jet purchase to the French firm Dassault Aviation in a sealed cover. The three Member Bench headed by the Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi had made it clear that it is not expressing any opinion on the suitability of the Rafale Aircraft but want to be satisfied about the legitimacy of the decision making process.

The cacophony on Rafale deal had seriously dented country's defense preparedness and our enemies are having hearty laugh over our bickering. The country had already suffered during the past 15 years in defense preparedness and the congress was in power for the 10 years and should explain their inaction

It is however, of utmost interest to review the parameters available in public domain with focus on defense needs. The Air Force is awfully short of Multi-Purpose Aircrafts for meeting the external threats from two fronts. As against the requirement of 44 Squadrons it has only 32 Squadrons (half of these squadrons are of vintage Mig 21, Jaguar and Mig 27 of more than 40 to 55 years old)  to guard the Indian skies. Due to never ending controversies it could never got the weapons to its full strength. 

First the criticism from the Congress. Soon after the deal was signed in April 2015,the congress spokesperson very next day raised the question of cost and asked for making public the details of the agreement and questioned escalation of cost of a single Aircraft from 715 crore to ₹1,600 crore. The party has blamed the government for by passing the procurement procedure and smelled rat over signing of an agreement between Dassault the manufacturer of Rafale and the Anil Ambani led Reliance Defense firm for implementing the 50% offset clause. The interview of former French President Hollande to a French TV about Indian government proposing the name of Reliance Defense for the offset clause had added fuel in the fire.

The government however, had stoutly rejected the allegations and questioned the rationale of comparing the two different base year prices and insisted that it got significantly better terms than those quoted in the original bid under UPA, with a total saving of more than 1600 million Euros (350 million Euros on the cost of aircraft with a further reported saving on weapons, allied maintenance and training package amounting to a around 1300 million Euros or Rs 12,600 crores). However, a cost breakdown of Rafale in the original bid under UPA and in the 36 aircraft in the government-to-government deal will never be in public domain due to the secrecy clause between the two governments. The government stand had been strongly supported by the serving Air Chief as well as his predecessor by saying that two prices cannot be compared to the previous version of the deal as these are being fully loaded with India specific high end technology. The former Defense Minister Sharad Pawar  had opined that he cannot level accusation unless he gets the proof.

Now let us examine it from the perspective of informed citizens. The Rafale aircraft was selected by the then UPA government in 2012 over its other rivals. However, the negotiations with Dassault dragged on over disagreements on warranty for aircraft to be produced by Hindustan Aeronautics' Lts (HAL). India wanted Dassault to ensure the quality of aircraft produced by HAL, but Dassault refused to do so. The other cause of difference was HAL demanding three times the man power days than offered by the Dassault. In January 2014 the Dassault informed that the cost of each aircraft had increased by 120 million dollars (756 crore). There was no further action by UPA government and in May 2014 the NDA government took over. Soon after the Air Force seriously flagged the issue of replacing its ageing fleets before the new Defense Minister Manohar Parikar which ultimately led to signing of Rafale deal as a government to government venture during Prime Minister's France visit in April 2015. The deal was thus an emergency response to the demand of Air Force. The twin-engine Rafale combat jet is designed as a multi-role fighter for air-to-air and air-to-ground attack and is nuclear-capable and its on-board Electronic Warfare systems can also perform reconnaissance and radar jamming roles.

From the point of view of cost in 2014 itself the cost was revised by the Dassault for the base version of aircraft and the two cannot be compared because for the 36 Rafale aircrafts the government ensured to get custom made fully loaded aircrafts with latest weapons package. 

If our leaders continue to be at each other's throat no government can finalize the deal even in next 50 years. There is also a catch in Hollande's remarks  who when asked by the French media about the conflict of interest involving former president's partner Julie Gaye (who's film was funded by Anil Ambani) took a diversionary tactics to escape. In international arms deal firms do lobbying and Reliance must have been in touch with Dassault and it should be not be a case for so much of ruckus considering the national interests after the air on this had been cleared by the Dassault and French government.  It is a fact that country's enemies will try to derail this deal through clandestine planting of false reports directed at the doors of opposition leaders and in dinner gossips!. 

For future the government should seriously plan to develop a robust defense industry with private sector participation and encourage foreign investment with private players. As for HAL it has taken almost 33 years to develop 'Tejas'. They will now face competition from private sector in the long term which in effect is an opportunity for them.  Now the Reliance,  Tata and  Adani  all new in defense sector had forged alliances with foreign armed manufacturers and people should welcome this trend. The 50% offset clause in this deal should be used to develop defense infrastructure in the country. Let us end the saga of Mathematics of incompetence in defense procurement where incompetence plus incompetence equals incompetence. (1200 words)

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