India’s opposition seeks probe against PM Modi over Rafale deal

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Police officers detain activists of the Delhi Pradesh Youth Congress during a protest in New Delhi on March 7, 2019, demanding resignations of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defens Minister Nirmala Sitharaman over allegations of corruption in a Rafale fighter planes deal. (REUTERS/Adnan Abidi)
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Police officers detain activists of the Delhi Pradesh Youth Congress during a protest in New Delhi on March 7, 2019, demanding resignations of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defens Minister Nirmala Sitharaman over allegations of corruption in a Rafale fighter planes deal. (REUTERS/Adnan Abidi)
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Police officers detain activists of the Delhi Pradesh Youth Congress during a protest in New Delhi on March 7, 2019, demanding resignations of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defens Minister Nirmala Sitharaman over allegations of corruption in a Rafale fighter planes deal. (REUTERS/Adnan Abidi)
Updated 08 March 2019
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India’s opposition seeks probe against PM Modi over Rafale deal

  • Gandhi accuses premier of corruption in multibillion-dollar agreement.
  • Press associations condemn move to “muzzle the media.”

NEW DELHI: India’s main opposition Congress party has demanded an investigation against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the multibillion-dollar purchase of Rafale jets from the French company, Dassault Aviation.

It follows fresh revelations by The Hindu newspaper about the purchase.

“It’s a blatant case of corruption,” Rahul Gandhi, Congress president, said in a press conference in New Delhi on Thursday.

“It is clearly stated that the PM of India is carrying out a parallel negotiation. Why should there not be a criminal investigation,” he asked. Gandhi has long accused Modi of altering the original terms of the negotiation to favor his industrialist friend, Anil Ambani.

The Hindu, one of India’s oldest and most widely read English newspapers, said in a report on Wednesday that Modi had set aside objections from his finance and defense ministries and negotiated a costlier deal with Dassault than that agreed by his predecessor, Dr. Manmohan Singh. 

The report further said that in the absence of a bank guarantee, the cost of the purchase escalated further.

The investigative piece says that the deal signed by Modi in 2016 for 36 Rafale jets is €246.11 million ($276 million) more expensive than the estimated cost of the 126 aircraft deal originally negotiated by the previous government.

The newspaper’s report was published on the day that the Supreme Court was hearing a petition seeking a review of its Dec. 14, 2018 judgment in the Rafale jet purchase, in which it has ruled out any probe into the deal and said that there is no evidence of favoritism toward any industrialist as alleged by the petitioners. 

The review petition asked the court to revisit the judgment in the light of fresh evidence that has appeared since December, which the government had not shared in the beginning. It also asked the apex court to look into the allegations that the government deliberately misled the court to get a favorable verdict.

However, when the hearing started on Wednesday, top lawyer K.K. Venugopal argued that the documents published by The Hindu should not be examined by the court as they were “stolen.”

He added that the government was considering prosecuting The Hindu newspaper under the Official Secrets Act that seeks to protect government secrets.

“Those who put documents on the Rafael deal into the public domain are guilty under the Official Secrets Act and of contempt of court,” he said.

Indian political parties have been gunning for Modi over the 2016 purchase of 36 Rafael planes from Dassault Aviation estimated to be worth $8.7 billion, saying that he overpaid for the planes and had not been transparent.

The opposition, led by Gandhi, has spent the past year alleging that the deal is a scam, in which India is overpaying for the jets and the government is allowing a private company — owned by Ambani’s Reliance Defense — to benefit instead of state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).

In a statement, N. Ram, chairman of the Hindu Group and the author of the article, said that his report is part of “investigative journalism” and the report contains “significant information that was withheld or suppressed despite repeated demands in Parliament and outside.”

He said that by calling the report a “stolen document,” the government itself verifies the authenticity of the document.

The report and the admission of the secret defense file being “stolen” have given fresh ammunition to the opposition, with Gandhi alleging that “there is now enough evidence to prosecute the PM and the trail of corruption begins and ends with him.”

Ravi Shankar Prasad, a senior leader and minister of the ruling Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) in New Delhi, reacted strongly and called Gandhi’s allegations “blatant lies.”

“He does not believe the Indian Air Force, does not trust the Supreme Court’s verdict that clearly said there is no commercial impropriety in the (Rafael) procurement process. He does not believe the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General),” Prasad said in a press conference.

“Will Rahul Gandhi need a certificate about Rafale from Pakistan? In that we cannot help. Of late, he believes Pakistan more than Indian forces and its leaders,” Prasad said.

In the meanwhile, several press associations condemned the move to “muzzle the media.”

In a strongly worded statement, they said that a government top lawyer’s statement in the court on Wednesday threatening to impose Official Secrets Act on The Hindu newspaper “has a potential of sending out a chilling effect to one and all in the media.”

It said that the press is bound by its dual responsibility of reporting what is in the public interest as well as raising questions, and these are “being sought to be stymied by top-ranking officials of the government.”

Political analyst Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay said that this was “damaging to Modi politically.”

“Hyper-nationalism cannot hide the Rafael story for long. Even the Supreme Court now seems to be annoyed with the government,” he said.

“There are limits to hyper-nationalistic politics. The real issues that affect the lives of the people will come and dominate the political narrative. The Rafale controversy will come and dominate politics again,” Mukhopadhyay told Arab News.


Hundreds of thousands march in London to demand new Brexit referendum

Updated 8 min 32 sec ago
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Hundreds of thousands march in London to demand new Brexit referendum

LONDON: Hundreds of thousands of people opposed to Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union marched through central London on Saturday to demand a new referendum as the deepening Brexit crisis risked sinking Prime Minister Theresa May’s premiership.
After three years of tortuous debate, it is still uncertain how, when or even if Brexit will happen as May tries to plot a way out of the gravest political crisis in at least a generation.
Marchers set off in central London with banners proclaiming “the best deal is no Brexit” and “we demand a People’s Vote” in what organizers said was more than one million people strong and the biggest anti-Brexit protest yet.
“I would feel differently if this was a well-managed process and the government was taking sensible decisions. But it is complete chaos,” Gareth Rae, 59, who traveled from Bristol to attend the demonstration, told Reuters.
“The country will be divided whatever happens and it is worse to be divided on a lie.”
While the country and its politicians are divided over Brexit, most agree it is the most important strategic decision the United Kingdom has faced since World War Two.
Thousands of pro-EU protesters gathered for the “Put it to the people march” at Marble Arch on the edge of Hyde Park around midday, before marching through the landmarks Picadilly Circus and Trafalgar Square and past the prime minister’s office in Downing Street to finish outside parliament.
March organizers estimated that more than one million people turned out for the march, exceeding a similar rally held in October, when supporters said about 700,000 people turned up.
It was not possible to independently verify the figure, although a Reuters reporter said the march was so busy that some of the crowd had to be diverted off the main route. Police declined to give an estimate on the number of protesters.
The one million estimate would make it London’s second biggest demonstration after a rally against the Iraq War in February 2003, which organizers said close to 2 million people attended.
“NEVER GONNA GIVE EU UP“
A range of politicians, including from the governing Conservative Party, addressed a crowd, which packed out Parliament Square and left some unable to get near.
Among them was Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson, who swung behind a People’s Vote on May’s deal despite party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s reticence on the issue, and Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon.
Phoebe Poole, 18, who was holding a placard saying “never gonna give EU up” in reference to a song by 1980s popstar Rick Astley, was not old enough to vote in the 2016 referendum.
“We have come here today because we feel like our future has been stolen from us. It is our generation that is going to have to live with the consequences of this disaster,” she told Reuters.
“It is going to make it harder to get a job. You are already seeing a lot of large companies leaving. I am worried about the future.”
Two hundred coaches from around Britain were booked to take people to London for the march.
A petition to cancel Brexit altogether gained 4.39 million signatures in just three days after May told the public “I am on your side” over Brexit and urged lawmakers to get behind her deal.
But protesters disagreed with May’s claim that she is on the side of the British public, with one placard reading: “You do not speak for us Theresa.”
In the June 23, 2016 referendum, 17.4 million voters, or 52 percent, backed Brexit while 16.1 million, or 48 percent, backed staying in the bloc.
But ever since, opponents of Brexit have been exploring ways to hold another referendum. Some opinion polls have shown a slight shift in favor of remaining in the European Union, but there has yet to be sustained evidence of a decisive change in attitudes.
May has repeatedly ruled out holding another Brexit referendum, saying it would deepen divisions and undermine support for democracy. Brexit supporters say a second referendum would trigger a major constitutional crisis.
Those favoring Britain remaining in the EU say Brexit will bring economic hardship and disrupt trade, as well as an end to many social benefits, including the right to live and work in 27 other countries.
Supporters of Brexit say the divorce might bring some short-term instability, but in the longer term Britain will thrive if cut free from what they cast as a doomed experiment in German-dominated unity that is falling far behind other major powers.
“We already put it to the people. And the people roared,” pro-leave group Change Britain said in a tweet.