WITH the Supreme Court asking for details of the “decision-making process” that led to the order for 36 Rafale aircraft, there is likely to be greater clarity about certain key questions which have created a political controversy.
The 36-Rafale deal is an offshoot of the tender issued by the Ministry of Defence in August 2007 to buy 126 fighter jets, 108 of which would be made in India by public sector HAL. After extensive trials of six foreign aircraft, the IAF selected the Rafale and Eurofighter jets as having met its requirements.
When commercial bids were opened in 2012, Rafale came as the ‘L-1’ or lowest bidder, which led to the process of negotiations being started with Dassault, the maker of Rafale.
The negotiations continued even after the NDA government came to power in May 2014. The two sides could not sign an agreement for nearly three years as HAL and Dassault could not agree on the terms.
A day prior to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Paris in April 2015, then Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar said “there are discussions under way between the French company, our Ministry of Defence, the HAL which is involved in this. These are ongoing discussions. These are very technical, detailed discussions. We do not mix up leadership-level visits with deep details of ongoing defence contracts. That is on a different track.”
The joint statement issued during the PM’s visit noted, “Government of India conveyed to the Government of France that in view of the critical operational necessity for Multirole Combat Aircraft for Indian Air Force, Government of India would like to acquire (36) Rafale jets in flyaway condition as quickly as possible.
“The two leaders agreed to conclude an Inter-Governmental Agreement for supply of the aircraft on terms that would be better than conveyed by Dassault Aviation as part of a separate process under way; the delivery would be in timeframe that would be compatible with the operational requirement of IAF; and that the aircraft and associated systems and weapons would be delivered on the same configuration as had been tested and approved by Indian Air Force, and with a longer maintenance responsibility by France.”
Earlier this month, when Air Chief Marshal B S Dhanoa was asked during his annual press conference by The Indian Express whether the IAF was consulted before the announcement was made, he said that “at the appropriate level, IAF was consulted. IAF had given some options. It is up to the government to choose”.
It was not clear from his answer if the IAF had asked for only 36 aircraft with no follow-up buying clause, to be bought from France before PM Modi’s announcement in Paris.
Thereafter, the procurement process for 126 Rafale aircraft was cancelled by the Defence Ministry on June 24, 2015. The two sides were expected to sign the final deal When French President Francois Hollande visited India for the 2016 Republic Day, but only signed an MoU as negotiations were still under way.
These negotiations went on until August 2016, MoS Defence Subhash Bhamre told Rajya Sabha in March 2018: “The inter-governmental agreement (IGA) for procurement of 36 Rafale aircraft with the French government was accorded approval by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) on August 24, 2016”.
Evidently, it was nearly 16 months after PM Modi’s announcement in Paris, that the procurement of 36 Rafale aircraft from France was approved by the CCS. The final deal was eventually approved in another CCS meeting on September 21, 2016, and the IGA signed between the Indian and French Defence Ministers in Delhi two days later.