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.