The Supreme Court on Thursday (November 14) dismissed the review pleas filed in connection with ₹59,000 crore Rafale fighter jet deal. This means that the plea for a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the deal stands dismissed.
This comes after the SC had decided in April to review its earlier verdict that gave a clean chit to the government in the deal, in the light of new information that came into public domain.
The new information, put out by the newspaper The Hindu, found that the deal negotiated by Narendra Modi government was not on “better terms” than the UPA era offer. It also said that the government gave “unprecedented waivers” in offset agreements.
There were further allegations that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) held “parallel negotiations” with Dassault over the deal. Quoting “an official note”, The Hindu report said that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had also raised objections, saying this “weakened the negotiating position of MoD and Indian Negotiating Team”.
Lawyer Prashant Bhushan, one of the petitioners, said the court needed to refer to various aspects, including alleged suppression of facts, and demanded a review of the December 14 judgement and a probe into the allegations.
Although the government said these were classified documents and procured in an illegal way, the three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi allowed its submission as the basis of the review petition and reserved its verdict in May.
The petitions include those by former union ministers like Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie.
What’s the Rafale deal?
The Rafale deal pertains to the Indian government’s procurement of Rafale fighter jets, a twin-engine Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), from French aviation firm Dassault Aviation.
The first deal was negotiated during the UPA regime, as per which, the French firm was to supply 126 Rafale jets to the Indian Air Force, including 18 fully loaded aircrafts. Indian government-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) was to manufacture the remaining 108 jets with assistance from Dassault. About ₹68,000 crore was earmarked for the deal in 2007.
However, as negotiations went on and on over technical details, the Modi government scrapped the old agreement in 2015 and signed a new inter-governmental deal with France for the purchase of 36 Rafale jets in a flyaway condition at a cost of ₹59,000 crore.
The new deal also did away with HAL as the offset partner as Dassault went with Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence.
The Centre came under attack on three major aspects — reducing the number of fighter jets from 126 to 36, the higher cost of each aircraft from ₹526 crore to ₹1,600 crore and the choice of Reliance Defence over HAL as the offset partner.
The government dismissed the allegations saying that it was foolish to compare the prices of a flyaway jet with a weaponised one. “Even a fool will not compare prices of a simple flyaway Aircraft with a weaponised Jet,” the late Arun Jaitley, who was former defence and finance minister, had said, accusing the Congress of comparing “two unequals”.
The Congress had asked the government to reveal the price of the jets but the demand was dismissed by BJP president Amit Shah who said disclosing the prices would harm the national interest of the country.
The government also denied any role in the selection of the offset partner, although Francois Hollande, who was the French President during the signing of the deal, later claimed that the Indian government proposed the name of the Reliance Defence as a partner for the deal and that the French government had no other choice.
However, the French government later issued a statement saying it was not involved in the choice of Reliance Defence.
The Indian government last year told the Supreme Court that HAL failed to become an offset partner due to a lack of understanding between it and Dassault.
A Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report tabled in Parliament earlier this year said the deal signed by the Modi government was 2.86% cheaper than what was negotiated by the UPA regime in 2007. However, the report said nothing about the key issue of offsets.
The report faced flak from the Congress with party leader Rahul Gandhi alleging that the report was prepared on behest of Prime Minister Modi.
The December 14 judgement
The top court on December 14 last year ruled in favour of the government and dismissed all petitions seeking investigation into the alleged corruption in the deal. It had said that there was no occasion to doubt the decision-making process in the procurement of the jets.
The apex court had then said that there was no substantial evidence of commercial favouritism to any private entity. The verdict was welcomed by Dassault Aviation and the ruling BJP.