NEW DELHI: Bofors had become the single most talked about defence deal in the history of independent India that had even brought down a government, and till recently dogged the heels of the Congress first family, Rafale is fast acquiring embarassing dimensions for the BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi whose acquisition of 36 aircraft from the French is being closely questioned by the Opposition party with Congress president Rahul Gandhi leading the charge.

The Congress has raised the issue in Parliament repeatedly, Rahul Gandhi has spoken of it at press meets and election campaigns, and the Opposition has also joined in asking the government to answer just one question: what is the cost of the Rafale aircraft as re-negotiated by PM Modi himself during an early visit to France?

The deal w

as mired in controversy at that time itself, when PM Modi struck down the original agreement for 126 aircraft to 36 aircraft without the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar having an idea of the shift in approach. Parrikar made it worse by a bunch of self contradictions, with the pitch being further queered by the entry of magnate Anil Ambani into the defence sector, and a sizeable slice of the Rafale pie.

Amidst reports that the price of the 36 aircraft roughly equalled the negotiated price of the 126 aircraft, the BJP went on the defensive. And sought refuge by citing a secrecy pact with the French government that prevented it from disclosing such details. This has been contradicted by the Congress, and more recently by former Defence Minister AK Antony at a press briefing where he made it clear that the secrecy pact did not cover the declaration of the price of aircraft. This was just after Rahul Gandhi had drawn blood during the no confidence discussion in the Lok Sabha, riling Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on the Rafale issue to the extent that she was seen screaming at one point. And then calmed down somewhat to wave the ‘secrecy pact’ to justify her silence on the price of the aircraft.

Antony, respected for levels of honesty as Defence Minister that had of course virtually stopped procurement altogether made three important points:

The revelation of the ‘commercial cost’ of the Rafale aircrats does not violate any secrecy pact with the French government, as it does not reveal any classified or protected information. The commercial cost can be revealed as per the Indo French Confidentiality Agreement, 2008 that his government had signed.The scope of the agreement only extends to tactical and technical details of weaponry relating to the capability of the platform in question, and its performance and tactics in combat, And does not include any reference to commercial details and costs.

The price of the each aircraft as per the international bid opened on December 12, 2012 under the UPA-Congress government came to Rs 526 crores. This for 36 Rafale jets (though the deal was for 126 aircraft as per the requirement of the Indian Air Force) totalled Rs 18,940 crores.The government under PM Modi purchased 36 aircraft for Rs 60,145 crores that comes to Rs 1670 Cr per aircraft. This Antony said, was apparent from the Annual Report 2016 of Dassault Aviation of which he supplied a copy. In essence an extra amount of Rs 41,205 crores was paid by the PM from public money. (And the same aircraft was sold by Dassault Aviation to Egupt and Qatar at a price of Rs 1319.80 cr per aircraft).

As per law, the government is bound to provide full information to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, and the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). And in response to starred questions in Parliament on at least two occasions earlier the Defence Ministry had stated the price of each aircraft at Rs 670 crores. It is actually Rs 1670 Cr as per the Dassault Annual report. Why is the government silent on this now, Antony asked.

Sitharaman had little to offer in the House, except the secrecy pact. Rahul Gandhi has been consistent in asking for the price agreed to by the government for 36 Rafale aircraft, but there has been no response so far to his blistering attack during the no confidence motion. Instead the businessman he referred to, Anil Ambani has released a letter he reportedly wrote to Rahul Gandhi last year to sections of the media in which he has claimed that Reliance Defence has sufficient expertise, and “we are also the leaders in several areas of defence manufacturing.”

Interestingly Ambani whose letter came towards the end of the Gujarat election campaign last year during which the Congress had raised the Rafale issue in its campaign, stated that “all these 36 aircraft are being manufactured in France and will be delivered on a ‘fly away’ basis from Dassault manufacturing facilities in France to the Indian Air Force and no Indian company has any role to play.” The rest of the letter was mostly about his father Dhirubhai Ambani’s contributions, and his own.

Clearly the letter did not cut ice with the Congress President who again raised the industrialists role in the deal during the discussion in the Lok Sabha."The Defence Minister lied to the country. Whom is she trying to protect? She must tell that to the country. She has spoken an untruth," Rahul Gandhi said. And added that everyone knows the nature of PM Modi’s relationship with some businessmen. "One of them was given the Rafale contract and the gentleman benefited with ₹45,000 crore," he said, and added that public sector helicopter unit HAL was denied an opportunity. "Why was this contract was taken away from HAL? PM must explain. PM has not been truthful," he added.