NEW DELHI: India’s Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to review its earlier decision on a controversial fighter jet deal, dealing a blow to the government on the eve of a general election.
The opposition Congress Party has accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration of graft following a deal to buy 36 Rafale planes and the decision to pick Reliance Defense, owned by billionaire Anil Ambani, as a domestic partner. Reliance has no aeronautical expertise and was chosen ahead of state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd., which does, triggering allegations of a scam.
The court said in December there was no evidence of commercial favoritism and that there was no need for intervention.
But it has now accepted a petition to review its earlier judgment on the basis of documents published by the media over the past four months.
It also dismissed objections from the government, which said the documents were stolen and could not be valid evidence.
“We deem it proper to dismiss the preliminary objections to hold and affirm that the review petitions will be adjudicated on their merits on the basis of the relevance of the three documents whose admissibility was questioned by the respondents (the government),” Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi said.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi welcomed the decision. “The Supreme Court has done justice today. The Supreme Court has accepted that there was corruption in Rafale and if the PM debates the issue with me, he will not be able to see eye-to-eye with the people of the country,” he said.
The Hindu newspaper reported that the deal signed by Modi in 2016 for 36 Rafael jets was $276 million, and more expensive than the estimated cost of the 126 aircraft deal originally negotiated for by the previous government.
It also reported that the prime minister’s office and Defense Ministry were conducting parallel negotiations, and that Modi’s government gave unprecedented waivers in the offset agreement to the French company.
India’s political parties have been gunning for Modi over the purchase of the Rafale planes from Dassault Aviation, saying he overpaid for them and had not been transparent.
Sitaram Yechury, from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said that Modi and his government had compromised national security for “corruption and cronyism” in an important defense deal.
But the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) denied any wrongdoing.
“There is nothing to hide. It is only an effort to create confusion in the minds of the people,” said BJP general secretary Ram Madhav as he dismissed the political repercussions. “You see, people trust Modi more than anybody else.”
Analyst Satish Misra, from the Observer Research Foundation, said the ruling would have an impact on people’s perceptions.
“So far, the perception has been managed well by Modi. This is the first time there is a problem confronting the prime minister,” he told Arab News. “It all depends on how the opposition exploits it. Until today the Rafale issue was only being raised by Congress. If all the parties raise this issue, this will resonate in the elections. Right now, the national security issue is dominating the election. Will this ruling overtake the prevailing narrative? It remains to be seen.”
Another analyst said the Supreme Court move was a blow to the ruling party.
“The very fact that the Supreme Court is willing to accept the media reports as evidence is a big setback for the government,” Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay told Arab News. “The opposition has a stick to beat the government with. Whether the issue can resonate in the election depends upon how it (the opposition) uses it in the campaign.”