Will the UPA government, tottering under blows delivered by various exposures of corruption scams, have to face another, possibly knockout, punch? The Raphale jet fighter deal needs to be watched. The issue is not which is the better plane – the French Raphale or Britain’s Typhoon. In the Bofors gun deal that rocked the Rajiv Gandhi government the issue was never about the quality of the gun. The allegations were about the considerations that led to its purchase. Will the same question arise over the Rs 62000 crore fighter jet deal?
Although Dr. Manmohan Singh’s cabinet is legally responsible for the deal, thinly veiled insinuations are pointing at the Gandhi dynasty for the British loss. There has been severe criticism of British Prime Minister Mr. David Cameron for his failure to clinch the Typhoon deal. Britain faces high unemployment and the defence contract would have created many jobs.
The opposition tore into Mr. Cameron. Ms. Alison Seabeck, the Labour Shadow Defence Minister said:
“This is a disappointing response from a Prime Minister who has failed to go in to bat for British industry and British jobs at a time of economic uncertainty. Yes, David Cameron visited India in 2010, but that was 18 months ago. Whilst the French government was doing all that it could to secure a multi-billion pound contract for their industries, David Cameron was nowhere to be seen despite his Government claiming that ministers should be doing their utmost to support British based industries. Hundreds of thousands of British jobs depend on our defence industries and their suppliers. Hard-working families and struggling businesses will not thank the Prime Minister for his complacency.”
The British media was more blunt and specific. Mr. Nicholas Watt writing in London’s The Guardian said:
“He (Cameron) appears to have no links with India 's real decision makers, the Gandhi family. Cameron says he has excellent relations with Manmohan Singh, his Indian counterpart. He will be raising the defence contract with Singh. But Singh is a technocrat with little real power. Power within India 's ruling Congress Party rests with the Gandhis… Rahul Gandhi has no links to the Tories because the party neglected the Gandhis during its years in opposition. Cameron's approach during his visit to India also grated with the Gandhis.”
Should anything be read between the lines? What precisely was the shadow defence minister Ms. Seabeck alluding to when she said the “French government was doing all it could to secure a multi-billion pound contract for their industries”? What did the French government do?
For a deal involving technical expertise one fails to understand what relevance would any of the Gandhis have to take a decision, as The Guardian seemed to suggest.
For Indians swamped by corruption scandals rumour and suspicion have pushed into the background hard information. People will too readily believe that any major defence deal would be struck only after kickbacks have been received. One curious feature about corruption exposures is that almost invariably information is leaked by the aggrieved losing party in a commercial deal. That is what happened in the Bofors scandal. That is what happened in many other corruption scandals. Can any such thing possibly happen in this latest mega defence deal? Well, according to a media report the first signs have emerged.
The India Today news group has reported:
“Top government sources said on Friday that two senior officials of the ministry of defence (MoD), who are members of the contract negotiation committee, have questioned the methods adopted by it to conclude that French company Dassault’s Raphale had the lowest bid for the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) deal. The contract negotiation committee comprises senior officials from the MoD and the Indian Air Force. The contract is yet to be vetted by the ministry of finance before it is finally approved by the Cabinet Committee on Security. Rafale was declared as the lowest bid after the evaluation of the commercial bids made by the different companies to the MoD. Rafale had pipped British fighter jet Eurofighter Typhoon, while the other rivals from the US, Russia and Sweden were eliminated in different stages of competition.”
It will be a sad day if years after the Bofors scandal there is a repeat occurrence. The government’s failure to legitimize middlemen for defence contract lies at the heart of the problem. It remains to be seen if the rumbling against the deal will subside or whether it has just started.