If the Bofors gun procurement was labelled as the largest defence procurement scam in the history of India, we need to look a little around us and think about the Rafale deal that Minister for Defence, or the self-styled ‘Raksha Mantri’ bagged for an ageing Indian Air Force.
Narendra Modi in his garishness to pursue a break from the Congress legacy junked the 128 MMRCA deal with the French company Dassault in 2015, and then ordered the then defence minister to seek out other combat aircrafts. In the pursuit, Manohar Parrikar surveyed the best aircrafts available and found out Rafale to be the best contender.
The erstwhile deal mandated Dassault to provide 126 aircrafts for Rs 54,000 crores, out of which 18 were to be in flyaway condition, while the rest involved the government owned HAL to produce the rest on a technology transfer agreement.
The new deal has certain eminent drawbacks. To start with, the new procurement deal is about 36 aircrafts which is pegged at a whooping cost of Rs 58,000 crores, making it India’s most expensive defence deal. Under Parrikar, the jets were to be procured in 2 years’ time, while the costs were still less, but now the cost has dramatically increased, keeping aside the date of delivery, which is awaiting planetary signals. The next flaw seems to be the groping in of Reliance Defence, led by Anil Ambani. The company has no experience of manufacturing, and there also exists no clause of technology transfer in the agreement, and HAL seems to have been put out of business though it has the requisite infrastructure and experience to take up the task .
The deal has another aspect where in a democratic set up, the entire deal must have been laid down before the Cabinet Committee on Security for approval and discussion which did not happen at all.
The most peculiar feature yet is the frail condition Indian Air Force, which is packed with ageing squadrons of MMRCA and LCA and others. The Air Force is in an urgent need of not just the Rafale but it needs a sound replacement for the Tejas, which does not have solid credentials to deliver the required output. The Indian Air Force will be in shatters before the year 2022 sets in denting the overall combat preparedness and response to situations of defence threat.
The price figures and procurement procedures were also targeted by Rahul Gandhi recently which did not assume much significance given the credibility of the Junior Gandhi.
Yet, there is stark bypassing of Parliamentary customs, and procedures, along with pricing issue that saw the prices to have almost doubled in a few years time, and the fact that the Indian partner is again the Ambani scion also puts the deal in want for scrutiny.
The Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman said that all the procedures and methods have been followed, while Modi himself has chose to keep silence. On the other hand Anil Ambani asserted that through the 49% FDI route the deal is a valid one. This adds another aspect where does FDI come into play at all when there is a deal to buy off-the-shelf aircrafts. The overall silence is also awaiting an explanation soon, which is substantive rather than speculative.
The procurement methods and the entire deal will have to be scrutinised in the winter session of the Parliament to answer the taxpayer about the affairs that affect the security of the country and aim to benefit the Air Force.
If the deal is tainted with gains, then it will be interesting to find out who did the deal benefit the most. The government must come out strong, lest this deal becomes the biggest defence scandal of India, and then the Air Force will have to try finding ways to renovate its ageing fleet all by its own, or privatise the operations to Ambanis, Tatas or any foreign entity.