NEW DELHI: The Hindu newspaper on Wednesday quoted official papers as showing that Prime Minister Narendra Modi ignored opposition from his defence and finance ministries to negotiate a costlier deal with France for Rafale warplanes than was agreed by the Manmohan Singh government. The planes are expected to begin arriving in September.
The government angrily told the Supreme Court that the official papers cited by The Hindu were stolen from the defence ministry, indicating a criminal case could be made against the newspaper, the Supreme Court was hearing a review petition on Wednesday on its earlier clean chit to the deal.
Attorney General KK Venugopal echoed the prime minister’s claim that the Rafale warplanes would have changed the outcome of the recent aerial showdown with Pakistan.
Opposition leader Rahul Gandhi said the latest revelations on the deal were enough to charge Mr Modi with corruption.
“It is a criminal offence. We are objecting primarily because secret documents can’t be annexed with the petition. Review and perjury petitions must be dismissed,” Mr Venugopal said.
India needs Rafale jets to defend the country the government said at the open court hearing on petitions asking the Supreme Court to review its clean chit to the fighter jet deal with France.
“We need Rafale jets to defend our country from F-16 fighter planes that recently bombed us. Without Rafale how can we resist them?” the government’s lawyer argued.
“Rafale fighter jets are needed, although MIG-21 of the 1960s performed beautifully against the F-16,” he added, referring to the dogfight with Pakistan around the Line of Control.
India says Pakistan used F-16 planes to try to bomb Indian military installations across the LoC. The air duel took place a day after India sent its fighter planes to target alleged terror training camp in Balakot.
“Because of the urgency [the need for fighter jets], negotiations started for Rafale. The first batch is to be supplied in September and 52 pilots are to be sent to France for two-three months training. It is to protect the security of the country. But we are attacked,” said the Attorney General.
He said two squadrons of Rafale fighter jets were arriving in flyaway condition and added: “It is not for the court to intervene. Does Supreme Court know how many fighter planes we have?”
Justice KM Joseph replied: “Suppose great crime is committed, are you going to take shelter under national security?”
The government said documents linked to the Rafale deal had been stolen and petitioners were violating the Official Secrets Act by relying on classified documents.
Petitioners like lawyer Prashant Bhushan had drawn the court’s attention to an investigative report by The Hindu.
“These documents were stolen from the defence ministry either by former or present employees. These are secret documents and can’t be in the public domain,” Mr Venugopal said.
Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi asked what action the government had taken.
“We are investigating how these documents were stolen,” said the AG, accusing The Hindu newspaper of relying on these classified documents.
“It is a criminal offence. We are objecting primarily because secret documents can’t be annexed with the petition. Review and perjury petitions must be dismissed,” he said.
The Hindu reported that the Rafale deal became more expensive for India because of France’s refusal to provide bank guarantees.
The news scoop by N Ram, Chairman of The Hindu Publishing Group, says the deal signed by Mr Modi in 2016 for the aircraft and weapons packages for 36 fly- away Rafale fighter jets was more expensive by around INR 1,963 crore (246.11 million euros) than the estimated aligned cost of the 126 aircraft deal being negotiated by the previous Congress-led government.
The case will be next heard on March 14.
Published in Dawn, March 7th, 2019