After a December verdict that found “nothing amiss” in India’s 2016 deal for 36 Rafale jets, India’s Supreme Court today rejected a raft of petitions asking the top court to review its decision. In its December 2018 decision, the Supreme Court had refused to order an investigation into the Euro 7.8 billion deal, giving the incumbent Narendra Modi government big relief before the inbound national election.
Allegations of corruption and cronyism in the Rafale deal became the centrepiece of the opposition Congress Party’s offensive on the Modi government during the ill-tempered 2019 election, one in which the Modi-led BJP won in a historic landslide. The Rafale issue was seen to have nearly no resonance among voters, though petitioners say that has nothing to do with the efficacy of their allegations. The lead petitioners seeking a review of the Supreme Court’s ‘all clear’ on the Rafale deal include former Union ministers Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and activist lawyer Prashant Bhushan.
Significant observations in today’s Supreme Court include:
‘It does appear that the endeavour of the petitioners is to construe themselves as an appellate authority to determine each aspect of the contract and call upon the Court to do the same. We do not believe this to be the jurisdiction to be exercised.’
‘All aspects were considered by the competent authority and the different views expressed considered and dealt with. It would well nigh become impossible for different opinions to be set out in the record if each opinion was to be construed as to be complied with before the contract was entered into. It would defeat the very purpose of debate in the decision making process.’
‘We decline to, once again, embark on an elaborate exercise of analyzing each clause, perusing what may be the different opinions, then taking a call whether a final decision should or should not have been taken in such technical matters.’
Read the full Supreme Court judgement here.
The unanimous decision by a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court (including outgoing Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi) included a ‘separate opinion’ by one of the three — Justice KM Joseph — that said the dismissal did not preclude the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) from looking into any complaints received. This may, however, only be seen as a technical observation for clarity in the event that the verdict is seen as a bar on investigations of any kind.
“I think we have been vindicated. In December 2018 I had issued a statement that Supreme Court has given a fine judgement and at that time some people said that I was being political, which was incorrect,” says Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa (Retd.), who was IAF chief during the entire length of the Rafale storm in India’s political battlefields.
The Indian Air Force found itself drawn into the political trading of charges last year, mounting an unusually detailed defence of the Rafale deal, in a landscape where the military is rarely ever expected to speak in public.
The Rafale scandal consumed much of India 2018-19 election campaign, and was seen to be a resounding failure in terms of political resonance compared with the political capital invested in it. The opposition Congress Party’s election war-cry ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ (‘The watchman — PM — is a thief’) was linked directly to the Rafale deal allegations.
It is unlikely, however, that the Rafale saga is at an end. In a country with a large appetite for politics based on defence ‘scandals’, expect the issue to a political hot-button for months to come. Legally, today’s dismissal of review petitions is the equivalent of a door being slammed for the second time on those alleging corruption. But next steps in the story could include curative petitions, scrutiny by India’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) — and there’s always the possibility of fresh allegations emerging.
On the strength of today’s verdict, the Modi government has renewed allegations that the Congress Party and Rahul Gandhi were speaking at the behest of other aircraft manufacturers, something the latter have denied, insisting the campaign was about corruption.
The first four of 36 Rafale jets were handed over to the Indian Air Force in Merignac, France on October 8 and will arrive in India in May 2020. The two squadrons will be based in Ambala and Hasimara.