Govt is duty-bound to account for public funds. It’s time for the prime minister to explain the Rafale deal.
Editorial comment in Business Standard, 13th Nov 18
As more and more details on the controversial Rafale aircraft deal become public, the government’s continued silence on the purchase of 36 fighter aircraft from France in September 2016 is baffling. Most recently, a three-part series in this newspaper has drawn extensively from the aborted 2007 tender (Request for Proposals, or RFP) for 126 Rafale fighters to show how all the four issues which the government claimed as new in the 2016 deal was already there earlier. For example, the government has argued that India-specific enhancements have raised the Rafale’s price. But the 2007 RFP contains all of these elements. Also, contrary to the government’s argument, the RFP stipulates the supply of weapons, along with the first 18 aircraft. The same is true for other issues such as technology transfer and spares and logistical guarantees. The government must now explain why the per-aircraft price that India agreed to in 2016 was significantly higher than the price that French vendor, Dassault, quoted in response to the 2007 tender, even though the terms, conditions, and aircraft configuration in the 36-Rafale deal in 2016 were almost identical to the 2007 RFP. Explanation is also needed for the defence ministry’s sudden decision to quietly change government oversight of offsets that absolved it from its function of pre-vetting and clearing offsets.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi must also explain how the decision was arrived at to reduce the number of Rafale fighters being procured from 126 (six squadrons) to merely 36 fighters (two squadrons). On the one hand, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley have justified the hurried nature of this deal by citing an urgent need to make up the IAF’s fighter shortfalls. On the other, no rationale has been offered for reducing the number of Rafales to one-third. The defence procurement procedure (DPP) requires every arms procurement contract to begin with the user service (in this case, the IAF) specifying the numbers and capabilities it requires. That process was quite clearly abandoned in the inexplicable hurry to conclude this deal. Among those left out of the process was the IAF, in whose name these decisions were being taken.
A look at the 2007 RFP also reveals that India lost out badly in replacing a contract that involved building most of the fighters in the country for one that involved building them abroad. The former arrangement catered not just for maintenance, repair and overhaul of the Rafale during its 40-year service life, but also for the cost of transferring a host of specified technologies, setting up a manufacturing line in India, and developing a chain of vendors that would have galvanised domestic defence aerospace manufacturers. The 126-Rafale deal even included the cost of operating the six Rafale squadrons for their entire service lives. So far, the BJP has fielded party spokespersons and government ministers to answer the many questions swirling around the Rafale. However, these functionaries, howsoever able, were simply not part of the decision that was taken in the prime minister’s office in April 2015 to announce the Rafale purchase in Paris. Like in all democracies, the government is duty-bound to account for the expenditure of public funds. It’s time for the prime minister to explain the Rafale deal.