AgustaWestland Impact on Rafale: Who Will Now Dare Overrule the Law Ministry Objections?
NEW DELHI: “All these allegations on defence deals without evidence will ensure that no one signs on a defence contract, acquisitions and procurements will be hit badly,” warned Samajwadi party leader Ram Gopal Yadav during the discussion on the AgustaWestland VVIP helicopter deal in the Rajya Sabha. No one really reported him but he voiced a sentiment now being echoed by many in the strategic establishment. And the defence contract likely to be immediately impacted is the Rafale ‘ready to fly’ order that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had placed 13 months ago, and that from a ‘done deal’ has been pushed into a nascent stage.
The ill informed coverage of the AgustaWestland deal, particularly on television channels indulging in wild allegations without even getting the basic facts of the deal and the defence nomenclature right, has rung warning bells all across the establishment. The finger pointing face off between the BJP and the Congress is being seen by defence experts as atmospherics that will ensure the return of the AK Antony era where procurements ---despite the urgent military need---had come to a virtual standstill.
The public trial of the former Air Chief, the sources said, will ensure that no defence chief sticks his neck out for a defence contract regardless of the requirements. If bribes have been indeed taken, the government should have moved ahead quietly and meticulously with the investigation set up by the UPA government, and ensured that those guilty were brought to book, the sources said. Instead this public “trial” with sections of the television media going “berserk” is a clear signal that nothing is going to be done about the corruption, but at the same time it will place a brake on procurements that the military sorely needs. As the sources explained, a noting on the file now will be enough to stall a deal regardless of merit as no official certainly is willing to lay his neck on the block.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sudden decision to announce the purchase of 36 Rafale jets during his visit to France over a year ago, has run into a logjam. For a year now the deal, intended to ensure the quick supply of the fighter jets, was bogged down in price negotiations. PM Modi said in January this year during the visit of French President Francois Hollande, "Except for the financial aspects, we have an inter-governmental agreement on the 36 Rafale jets. We will resolve the financial aspects soon."
But now the price negotiations seem to have become secondary to observations by the Ministry of Law and Justice. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar informed Parliament, "the Ministry of Law & Justice has made certain observations and the same will be adequately taken into account while finalizing the IGA, which is still under negotiations." This sources here said, was a clear indication that even the technical issues have not been resolved and basically places the contract at a preliminary stage of bilateral discussions and negotiations.
The Law Ministry reportedly wants India to replace Switzerland as the place of arbitration; it wants a more stringent liability clause and according to sources is of the view that the French government should be liable in case of breach of supply. France is clearly not happy with these observations, with sources pointing out that this will need a political waiver from the top in both New Delhi and Paris for the negotiations now to make any headway. “Not a single senior officer is going to work around the Law Ministry’s conditions, not even now the Defence Minister,” the sources said.
Unofficially reports had suggested that the Rafale deal would be announced by the end of 2016. It is not clear on what basis this time frame was stated in media reports, but now the legal reservations that the French are resistant to is virtually pushing the Rafale deal to the ‘non starter’ space. In the meantime the initial contract of 126 jet aircraft is over, with not a word of explanation from the Defence Minister as to how the large shortfall of fighter jets will be overcome. The Indian Air Force has been facing a serious crisis of fighter jets, and as sources pointed out, 126 was not a magical figure pulled out of a hat but the actual need of the hour.
The television channels do not reflect the reality of the AgustaWestland deal, except for reeling out names of top Congress leaders without accountability. The Italian judge who has delivered the ruling himself said there were “traces” of evidence but made it clear that he had no knowledge of this at all. In the Rajya Sabha even MPs like Subramanian Swamy on the treasury benches did not name any Congress leader in connection with bribes taken, given the lack of evidence and the surety of a privilege motion. As the opposition MPs pointed out, the government allegations were flowing from an Italian court ruling and not from its own investigation that had been set up by the UPA government but clearly not taken forward for at least the past two years by the NDA government.
Interestingly, all political parties agreed that there was corruption involved in this deal. It is because of this, said the Congress, that we had cancelled the deal, impounded the three helicopters that had arrived, started the process of banning the company, and instituted an investigation. But you took the bribes, remained the BJP argument with former Defence Minister AK Antony reading out from what he said were public documents to urge the government to ban the company, to remove it from its Make in India list, to complete the enquiry and to act against the guilty. There was no assurance from the government that any of this will be done, except the reiteration of its stand that the investigation is in an advanced stage.
Meanwhile, the Indian Air Force is no longer trying to hide its urgent requirement for jet fighters. Vice Chief Air Marshal B.S. Dhanoa said at a press conference a few weeks ago, “Our numbers are not adequate to fully execute an air campaign in a two-front scenario. Probability of a two-front scenario is an appreciation which you need to do. But, are the numbers adequate? No. The squadrons are winding down.”
In response to a question he added, that the . “Government is seized of this problem” and the urgency was reflected in the order for the 36 aircraft. Of course he could refer to the inordinate delay. But went on to say, that the availability of aircraft for operations was also a worry. Many of the Sukhoi 30 Mki - Russian-origin fighters - for example were available for only half the time the IAF expects them to be because they need frequent repairs and maintenance. "If we have 35 squadrons and 90 per cent serviceability, it will be as good as having 42 squadrons," he said. The "serviceability ratio" of the Sukhois - the most advanced fighter aircraft with the IAF - is reportedly less than 55 per cent. This means that out of 100 aircraft, less than 55 are available."We have conveyed our concerns to the government. The government is seized of this problem and the reason why the government signed the 36 aircraft (Rafale) on G2G basis is because of urgency that they felt because of the depletion in squadron numbers," he said.
But now as the sources pointed out the fate of these 36 aircraft that, according to unconfirmed reports are also exorbitantly expensive now, remains uncertain. As no one now, except perhaps PM Modi, is willing now to bell the Law Ministry cat.