On July 20 the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance was faced with its first vote of no confidence. The occasion marked barrage of criticism against the government for overpaying for the 36 “ready-to-fly” Rafale fighter jets. The president of the Indian National Congress Rahul Gandhi alleged that the deal involved financial irregularities that have amounted to a “scam.” Originally the deal was afoot by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance on August 28, 2007, to purchase 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) for the Indian Air Force (IAF). The allocated budget was $10.2 billion. Dassault Aviation won the tender, in January 2012. The project, however, could not take off because of the Indian general elections and change of government. To stop further delays, Modi took matters into his own hands and refocused his defence team to expedite the process. The MMRCA deal was scrapped, and a new deal to buy 36 jets at the cost of 7.8 billion euro ($8.7 billion) was concluded April 10, 2015. Modi announced the new transaction in a joint press conference with then-President of France François Hollande. The cost of the new deal sparked controversy; speaking to Doordarshan on April 13, 2015, then-defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said: “Rafale is quite expensive. As you go into the upper end, the cost goes up. When you talk of 126 aircraft, it becomes a purchase of about Rs 90,000 crore.” In US dollar that figure amounted to $14.4 billion.

Though the government refrained from providing the breakdown or details of the new deal, the Indian defence analyst Ajai Shukla’s assessment of the purchase showed that without including other weapons, technology transfers, and spare parts, the figure comes to $155 million per plane. Whereas, the latest price of the jets under the MMRCA deal, announced by then-defence Minister Parrikar was $14.4 billion, which means that the price per plane under the previous deal was much lower at $114 million.

The secrecy around the purchase price of the jets talks volume about India’s defence acquisitions process. The transaction has also exposed India’s much-hyped claim of possessing modern and progressive warfare technology. Under the reality spotlight, India’s Air Force is operating at well below 31 squadrons, instead of the required 42 squadrons. Moreover, when the Rafale deal was negotiated in 2012, India’s fighter squadron strength was at 37. So, over the years, India has climbed down, rather than up, in enhancing its warring capacity. India’s national security is further compromised since the IAF is still using MiG-21 and MiG-27s, which are well past their retirement age.

The Indian defence law makes the inclusion of the offset clause mandatory for the procurement of defence equipment. Therefore, every defence deal is supposed to either get technology transferred or provide for the manufacturing of spare parts in India. To fulfil the offset clause, the Dassault Aviation went into a partnership with the Reliance group. The partnership led to the creation of the Dassault Reliance Aerospace Limited, a joint venture, in February 2017. Dassault Aviation and Reliance have built a plant in Nagpur to manufacture parts for Falcon aircraft. Indians were surprised as to why a company with no aeronautics experience, let alone in the military aviation sector, was chosen over the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited with 78-years of experience in defence manufacturing. Interestingly the Reliance Defence was created only 13 days before Modi announced this new deal.

The BJP government has been trying to give a face to the deal by reiterating the involvement of the French government throughout the negotiating process. However, in the latest twist, the former French President Francois Hollande had said that Reliance defence—-Anil Ambani—-was not chosen by Dassault. “We did not have a choice. We took the partner that was given to us.”

Two former ministers from BJP have labelled the Rafale transaction as “The case of criminal misconduct.” However, the Modi government instead of coming clean is throwing the ball from one coat to another.

The unholy-nexus between Ambani and Modi is considered to be at the heart of this dark deal.

The Modi-Ambani friendship is criticized as part of the crony capitalism that the BJP government has been accused of fostering since coming to power in 2014. According to the New Delhi-based Association for Democratic Reforms, BJP is the largest receiver of private donations by wealthy individuals and companies.

The International Institute of Strategic Studies’ 2018 report ranked India as the fifth largest defence spender in the world. However, most of this money is gone into renewing the inventory. The report says: “Its (India’s defence) development and procurement programs across the services are aimed at replacing aging equipment, and many projects have experienced significant delays and cost overruns, particularly indigenous systems.”

With the dream of ‘Make in India’ policy, aimed to strengthen the defence industrial base, in bad shape, and Modi’s hands smeared by the dirty politics of Kashmir, the scum of India’s bigoted and outmoded political and defence policies has begun to stink. India has always held close to its heart the desire of becoming a regional superpower, but without displaying the moral audacity to become one. The recent example is India’s refusal to accept Pakistan’s overture to begin the stalled dialogue process. Which the experts believe has been done purposefully, to divert the attention of the domestic audience from the Rafale deal.


The writer is a freelance journalist based in Lahore.