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Well aware of the sky-high stakes, the Congress and BJP are pulling out all the stops to win a raging debate over the government’s French fighter-jet deal

The protracted controversy over the Rafale fighter jets deal has taken on a life of its own and is all set to play a consequential role in the upcoming general elections. The focus on this issue and the noise around it is so high now that whichever side between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and opposition Congress comes across as being in the wrong risks having its electoral prospects crash in the big battle for Lok Sabha.

The Congress seemed to have finalised since last month its strategy of deploying the so-called Rafale scam as the ultimate weapon to boot the BJP out of the Centre, just as it had suffered the consequences of the Bofors scandal nearly three decades ago in the 1989 general elections.

For days on end in December, the Congress held up Parliamentary proceedings over its demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the Narendra Modi government’s purchase of 36 ready-to-fly Rafale fighter jets from France. While the government expressed readiness to hold discussions over the matter, it kept mum over a JPC probe into it.

As both the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha were repeatedly disrupted and adjourned over this issue, the Congress and other opposition parties such as the Communist Party of India (Marxist) also accused the BJP government of misinforming the Parliament as well as Supreme Court on the acquisition and pricing of the Rafale jets.

The reference to the apex court was pertaining to the clean chit that it gave to the Modi government earlier last month, saying that it saw nothing wrong in any part of the deal even as it brushed aside petitions seeking a court-monitored investigation into the matter.

On the last day of last year Finance Minister Arun Jaitley accused the Congress of “running away” from a discussion over the deal and simply spreading lies about it. “If you have the courage, begin the debate immediately,” he said amid a scene of chaos in the House, throwing the gauntlet at Congress.

The Congress picked it up in no time. “Jaitley ji has thrown a challenge … we accept it… we are ready for a debate on January 2. Please decide a time,” Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge said.

As the year turned, the Congress returned with a tweaked strategy.

On the second day of the new year, Congress president Rahul Gandhi began his assault in Lok Sabha by pointing out issues with the “process, pricing and patronage” of the Rafale deal. “I thought `daal me kuch kala hai but puri daal hi kali hai’ (I thought there was some wrongdoing but nothing is right),” he said.

He also sought to play some recorded conversations of a Goa minister that was purported to implicate the BJP in the Rafale deal. This led to heated exchanges between the BJP and Congress.

Upon not getting the permission of the Speaker, rightfully so considering the tape had not been officially authenticated, Gandhi went on to accuse Modi of unwarranted interference in the fighter jet deal’s negotiations.

The Congress president said Modi had wrongfully bypassed procedures to award an offset contract to a private entity after agreeing to a three-time hike in the price per aircraft and reducing the number of planes to be bought. Gandhi was also clearly suggesting that the deal happened despite objections from Defence Ministry officials.

“Who changed the requirement of Air Force from 126 to 36 in the new deal? The excuse given to purchase 36 aircraft was that they were needed urgently. Why has not a single aircraft landed on our soil till now?” he asked.

He sought to remind all that the UPA had finalised the price per aircraft at Rs 526 crore and was supposed to procure 126 fighter jets but when Modi met French President Francois Hollande in Paris, a new deal was struck and the price went up to Rs 1,600 crore per aircraft.

“Why did the price go from Rs 526 crore to Rs 1,600 crore?” Gandhi asked.

Referring to Hollande’s supposed statement that the contract was taken away from HAL and the offsets contract given to a private entity at the behest of Modi, Gandhi questioned the underlying reasons and intentions.

Noting that HAL has a 70-year-plus experience of making aircraft, Gandhi said: “HAL has tremendous record, it is the future of aviation in the country and gives thousands of jobs. Why was the contract taken away from HAL?” he asked even as he alleged that Modi put Rs 30,000 crore in the pocket of an individual and claimed that the private entity had brought land from money given by Dassault Aviation, the maker of Rafale fighter jet.

Referring again to the contents of the tape he had brought with him, Gandhi quoted the Goa minister as saying that Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar, who was the Defence Minister during the signing of the Rafale deal, has all the files and notings on it.

Elsewhere, on the same day, former finance minister Yashwant Sinha, journalist-turned-politician Arun Shourie and activist lawyer Prashant Bhushan filed a review petition in the Supreme Court seeking recall of its verdict on the Rafale fighter jets deal. The petition contended that the court was misled into its decision by incorrect government claims.

Among other issues, the petition also contended that there was opposition by expert members on increasing the benchmark price of the 36 aircraft from 5.2 billion to 8.2 billion euros – a claim that was very similar in nature to Gandhi’s.

Later in the evening of that day, while speaking at a media conference, Gandhi began challenging Prime Minister Modi to a “one-on-one” debate on the Rafale deal.

Just give me 20 minutes,” said Gandhi demanding Modi to answer “credibly” questions raised by him about the deal to procure 36 fighter jets from France.

He also accused Finance Minister Arun Jaitley of “lying.” Dismissing his defence of the deal in Lok Sabha, he questioned: “Why was the decision maker of the deal, Modi himself, not giving the answers?”

“The decision is on Rafale and the decision maker who announced the deal with pomp is not answering and Jaitley is trying to defend Modi and his actions.

“Modi can run away from debate, but the truth cannot be hidden,” alleged Gandhi.

Jaitley questions us about the figure Rs 1,600 crore, but he himself told Parliament that the size of the Rafale deal is Rs 58,000 crore, or Rs 1,600 crore per aircraft,” said Gandhi said, playing a video clip of Jaitley’s earlier address in Parliament.

Finding holes in Jaitley’s assertions that the cost of the jets was enhanced due to new weapons, Gandhi said the Modi government’s defence of the deal was inconsistent.

“The 2007 request for proposal (RFP) documents clearly states that direct flyaway aircraft be delivered with full compliments of weapons and the weapons package was integral to the flyaway aircraft,” said Gandhi reading out the RFP as he enumerated some of the weapon and equipment annexed with it.

“Jaitley has a habit of telling lies one after the other, but the reality is Rafale deal was made to steal from the exchequer,” said Gandhi adding “chowkidar chor hai” (watchman is a thief) – a line he has been using increasingly more often during his speeches.

As the pressure to respond to the Rafale allegations ramped up, the BJP countered those two days later in the Lok Sabha with a detailed two-and-a-half-hour response from Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

She pointed out that it was Congress that fiddled around with the deal and was unable to seal it during its 10 years in power, which jeopardised national security, while the BJP government finalised one in 14 months.

“There was a reason that the previous UPA government did not do anything required for the deal between 2006 and 2014. They (UPA) were dealing for 18 flyaway aircrafts. Why there was no agreement? You did not even buy a single aircraft. They did not intend buying. There is a difference between defence dealings and dealing in defence. We deal in defence as national security with priority,” she said.

She defended against every criticism of the Congress with some hard-hitting facts and figures.

Sitharaman noted that between 2004 and 2015, China added 400 aircraft, including fourth generation J-10, J-11, J-16, SU-27 and even stealth fifth generation fighters. Pakistan, she continued, had doubled the number of its main fighter aircraft.

The minister said that between 2002 and 2015, India’s squadron strength had gone down from 42 to 33, while that of the neighbour increased during most of the UPA government’s period and India kept moving at a snail’s pace.

She said that even in 2014, a “deadlock situation was created” over the MMRCA deal. “You leave the government without anything bought. There was no sense of urgency.”

Responding to the opposition questions on why only 36 aircrafts was finalised and not 126 as was proposed by the UPA government, the Minister said that the government followed the traditions of buying two squadrons as it was urgently required in view of the fragile security environment.

“In emergency purchases, the IAF normally advises for two squadrons,” she said adding that in 1982, 1985 and 1987 when defence deals were done with France and Russia, two squadrons each were purchased.

She said that the entire campaign on Rafale by the Congress has been based on falsehood and the grand old party was repeatedly lying and misleading the people.

Accusing the Congress of shedding crocodile tears for HAL, Sitharaman said the UPA did nothing to empower the public sector undertaking. “Congress government gave 53 waivers to HAL while we have given contracts worth Rs 1 lakh crore,” she said referring to parliamentary standing committee reports on HAL which had criticised the company for non-performence.

“Even unparliamentary words were used against the Prime Minister. Lies were spoken about foreign heads of governments,” she said apparently referring to the jibe at the Prime Minister by Congress President Rahul Gandhi that “Chowkidar chor hai”.

She said that even in 2014, a “deadlock situation was created” over the MMRCA deal. “You leave the government without anything bought. There was no sense of urgency.”

She also stated that there was no confirmation about Rs 526 crore, often cited by Rahul Gandhi, in official documents and asked “where they are getting it from”. She said it existed as a quote in a 2007 document.

The minister went on to explain that Rs 670 crore was the basic price and even taking Rs 526 crore as base price, the deal done by NDA was 9 per cent cheaper than that by UPA government as the price under unfulfilled MMRCA deal would come to Rs 737 crore taking into account inflation and currency exchange fluctuation.

While Sitharaman’s response was hailed by both Prime Minister Modi and BJP President Amit Shah as a demolition of the Congress’s misinformation campaign on the Rafale deal, her efforts did little to shut up the Congress.

After the Lok Sabha session ended, Gandhi claimed that Sitharaman evaded his questions on the Rafale deal and “ran away” when asked a pointed question if the IAF objected to the changes that Prime Minister Modi made in “two minutes” to the deal, negotiated over eight years.

“Instead of answering the question, she started doing drama — ‘Oh I was insulted. I was called a liar’. My simple question was that after such a long negotiation by the Air Force chief, Defence Minister, secretaries and Air Force officers, did those who did the whole negotiation object when Modi did the bypass surgery to the negotiated deal,” Gandhi had said.

The very next day, Gandhi released an edited video on his Twitter account where he was seen asking two questions on the Rafale deal – 1) Who took away the contract from HAL, and 2) Whether Indian Air Force (IAF) officers objected to the changes in the deal – while Sitharaman and other BJP ministers were shown to be having no response to the questions.

Gandhi also alleged that the Defence Minister must place documents before Parliament to prove her claim that the Modi government has given Rs 1 lakh crore worth of orders to defence PSU HAL, failing which she ought to resign.

Well aware of the implications of the issue, the BJP is also showing no signs of shying away from debates over it.

On the very day Gandhi released the video, the BJP president declared that apart from development, the other major poll plank for the party would be defence.

“After the Supreme Court verdict and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s speech in the Lok Sabha on Friday, there is not an iota of doubt about transparency in the Rafale fighter jet deal,” Shah said as he dismissed opposition demand for a JPC probe into the deal.

The next day, the Defence Minister responded to Gandhi’s latest accusations at her. “It’s a shame that the president of Indian National Congress is spreading lies and misleading the country. The HAL has signed contracts worth Rs 26,570.8 crore between 2014 and 2018 and contracts worth Rs 73,000 crore are in the pipeline,” she said in a tweet.

“Will Rahul Gandhi apologise to the country from the floor of the House (Lok Sabha) and resign?” she added.

However, on January 7, Gandhi once again refuted the figures she had presented.

“She spoke a clear lie in Parliament. Contracts of Rs 26,570 crore have been given to HAL. Remarks that more contracts of Rs 73,000 crore have been given is a total sham,” Gandhi told reporters in Parliament House complex.

The Congress that day moved a privilege motion Sitharaman for allegedly “misleading” the Lok Sabha during the debate on Rafale fighter jets deal.

Congress’ K.C. Venugopal submitted a breach of privilege notice against Sitharaman, accusing her of misleading the House on two counts: “She told the House that Rs 1 lakh crore worth orders were given to the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) which is false.”

“During her reply on Rafale deal, she also misled the House by claiming that the Supreme Court has approved the government’s stand on pricing of jets and purposefully avoided to inform the House that the court in fact has said that it will not go into pricing details of the jets,” said Venugopal.

The next day, as the Supreme Court reinstated Alok Verma as the CBI Director, setting aside the decision of the Central Vigilance Commission and the Centre to divest him of his powers to function as the head of the investigating agency, the Congress found more ammunition to attack the BJP with. Leading the attack, Gandhi said: “CBI chief (Verma) was removed because he wanted to start a probe into the Rafale (deal). Now we have some justice … Nothing is going to save the Prime Minister from Rafale…nothing.”

Amid all this, the tone and course of the Rafale debate took a new turn as Gandhi, during a public meeting in Jaipur, Rajasthan, lampooned Prime Minister Modi by saying that he chose a woman to defend him in the Parliament while he ran away from it.

In response, the BJP leadership began accusing the Congress and Gandhi of being disrespectful to the nation’s first woman Defence Minister.

“For the first time a woman has become Defence Minister of the country and for the first time the security of 115 crore countrymen is in the hands of a woman. That woman Defence Minister brought the opposition to its knees. Their lies were exposed.

“They were left so baffled that they are now bent on insulting a woman Defence Minister. This is not just an insult to the Defence Minister but an insult to women and women power in the country. Such irresponsible leaders will have to pay a price for it,” Modi said during a speech in Agra.

The BJP President too slammed Gandhi for his remarks and accused him of resorting to “misogyny”.

“Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s outstanding speech in Parliament has silenced the opposition. Unable to counter her on facts, they are resorting to misogyny. They owe an apology to India’s Nari Shakti,” Shah said in a tweet.

The National Commission for Women also announced this day that a notice shall be sent to Gandhi over his recent remark on Sitharaman.

“We will send a letter to Rahul Gandhi tomorrow morning asking him to clarify on what grounds he made such a remark. As a politician he cannot make such a statement that shows a misogynistic attitude,” Rekha Sharma, NCW Chairperson said.

“What is Rahul Gandhii trying to imply with his misogynistic statement: “ek mahila say kaha meri raksha kiijiye”? Does he think women are weak? The irony is calling an accomplished defence minister of the largest democracy a weak person,” Sharma tweeted.

From conspiracy theories to gender issues, the Congress and BJP are employing every trick in the political playbook to use the Rafale issue to their advantage. Will the public ever get to the truth of the matter? Someday certainly. But will that happen before the general elections, which are barely a handful of months away? That remains the big question.

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