The highest ‘all clear’ was pronounced today in India’s 2016 deal for 36 Rafale fighter aircraft. Presented with a raft of petitions over the last few months questioning the current Narendra Modi government’s selection process, price negotiations, choice of offsets partner — and directly alleging corruption and cronyism — a three-judge bench of India’s highest court today pronounced that there was ‘nothing amiss’ in the Rafale deal and that it had found no evidence of favouritism of any kind.
Observing that the country couldn’t be ‘unprepared’ in ‘matters of fighter aircraft’ and that the Supreme Court couldn’t ‘sit in appeal’ on every ‘matter of acquisition’, the court also pronounced that it wasn’t the job of the Supreme Court to look into matters of pricing — and that there we limits to the scope of judicial review of executive decisions.
The ruling comes as major relief to the BJP-ruled Union government, battered as it has been for nearly a year now by the Congress Party and its new president Rahul Gandhi with allegations that have stretched from multi-billion dollar favours to Indian businessman Anil Ambani (his firm is an offsets partner with Dassault in the deal) to ‘personal corruption’ by the Prime Minister himself.
But there are problems that could draw the controversy out, with a critical question being raised on the Supreme Court verdict — it mentions an audit report on the Rafale’s pricing that isn’t known to exist yet. The politics over the Rafale deal has now latched onto this crucial puzzle, with allegations that there is something more insidious afoot than a typographical error by the seniormost judge in the country.
Puzzling part of today's Supreme Court #RafaleVerdict: it mentions that pricing details shared with the CAG have been submitted by the latter in redacted form in Parliament. Not aware of any CAG report on the matter submitted in Parliament so far. pic.twitter.com/H7d7BCGnAN
— Shiv Aroor (@ShivAroor) December 14, 2018
The highly ill-tempered political storm over the Rafale deal intensified with a grouping of civil society individuals, including high-profile lawyer Prashant Bhushan and former BJP ministers Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha, who mounted deep dives into India’s procurement process and the manner in which the Rafale deal was signed in September 2016. A visibly angry Prashant Bhushan said he was very unhappy with the Supreme Court verdict today.
Perhaps more than anyone else, today’s verdict comes as a major setback to a high-decibel political campaign led by Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who had bet on converting the Rafale issue into a referendum against the Modi Government ahead of next year’s national election.
With India’s winter session of Parliament now open, expect the Supreme Court verdict to severely blunt the Congress Party’s weaponry against the Rafale deal, though political compulsions are unlikely to see the Opposition back off in a hurry. In fact, in an ironic but not unexpected twist, the ruling government has now pushed for a debate over the Rafale deal in Parliament, possibly to publicly attack the Opposition for ‘wasting’ the country’s and courts’ time with the Rafale allegations.
The protracted controversy has seen an unusual cast of characters drawn in, including former French President Francois Hollande, current French President Emmanuel Macron, sections of the French media, Dassault Aviation and even senior officers of the Indian Air Force.
Today’s Supreme Court verdict, the first major decision by the new Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi could have far-reaching implications, considering it sets a precedent as far as litigation against defence deals is concerned. The full fall-out will be known in the days ahead. Livefist will update this post with more from the Supreme Court’s order once released.