New Delhi: Nirmala Sitharaman, the Defense Minister of India finalized the Rafale deal with French compatriot Jean Yves LeDrian on his visit to the capital this week. The deal ensures the delivery of 36 ready-to-use twin-engine fighter jets to India by 2022.

The deal that was under negotiations for more than 7 years is sure to add immense power to the Indian Airforce as the state-of-the-art fighter jets are highly advanced and will give India an edge over neighbouring countries including Pakistan and China.

However, before Rafale could become the answer to IAF’s problems, the deal has gained attention for all the wrong reasons in the past few weeks and it is increasingly being speculated that the BJP government’s inability to provide any substantial details regarding the deal suggest that something is surely amiss.

Rafale deal under UPA

The Indian Air Force (IAF) pointed out in 2001 that the country requires at least 42 squadrons of fighter jets to strengthen and sustain the country’s aerial strength. 17 years later, India has only 32 active squadrons, out of which 10 are supposed to be grounded permanently as they are past their ‘expiry dates’ already.

Based on this initial requirement, The Ministry of Defense (MoD) shortlisted the French company ‘Dassault’ among several other bidders in 2012 to procure 126 Rafale jets. Under this agreement, India would’ve acquired 18 ready-to-use jets from Dassault, while the remaining 108 would be assembled in Bangalore by our very own Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) under the guidance and supervision of Dassault.

Multiple reports suggested that discussions between the two countries had collapsed due to disagreements over several clauses and technicalities that were expected to hinder the local production of the jets within India.

Modi & Co. take over

In 2015, the BJP government decided to over-rule UPA’s commitment citing it as over-expensive and eventually, during his visit to France in April, PM Modi announced a new deal – India was going to procure 36 ready-to-use fighter jets directly from Dassault in an inter-governmental deal worth ₹58,000 crores.

The question mark: How did debt-ridden Anil Ambani get involved?

Rahul Gandhi, National President of Congress raised this issue in July’s Parliament session and questioned the role of Anil Ambani’s defence company (that was incorporated in 2015) in the deal and how it was chosen as Dassault’s local partner over HAL.

Earlier this week, former French President Francois Hollande added fuel to the fire that has erupted, stating that the French government was ‘pressured’ into selecting Ambani’s Reliance defence and eventually forming ‘Dassault-Reliance aerospace limited’, a joint venture wherein Dassault will invest 50% of the total deal value – ₹30,000 crores as part of an exclusive offset clause.

Congress has termed the involvement of Reliance as an act of ‘favoritism’ at the expense of national interest, and have voiced their stand on the formation of a Joint parliamentary committee (JPc) that should investigate the intricacies of this deal after the Defense Minister refused to reveal any details due to ‘confidentiality’ clauses that may endanger national security.

The ‘Fun’ has just begun

While opposition leaders have tirelessly harrassed the ruling party, BJP leaders have also stepped up,  with claims suggesting that the infamous ‘Robert Vadra’ (brother-in-law of Rahul Gandhi) failed to procure the Rafale deal for his aide Sanjay Bhandari in 2013, in turn forcing the Congress government to delay the process further.

Recent history proves that all major defence deals in India end up being portrayed as scams/scandals wherein large sums of public money are routed illegally into foreign accounts of the main entities involved. The inclusion of Rafale deal in this list has further degraded India’s global image and could end up damaging it’s relationship with France as well.

Unfortunately, while the Indian Air Force struggles on the border, the drama leading up to the 2019 elections has only just begun.

*A squadron refers to a group of 12 fighter jets.

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Image credits: Press Trust of India (PTI)

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