In the fourth week of March 2015, about a fortnight before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the procurement of 36 Rafale fighter aircraft from France, businessman Anil Ambani visited then French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian’s office in Paris and had a meeting with his top advisors, The Indian Express has learnt.
The meeting was attended by Le Drian’s special advisor Jean-Claude Mallet; his industry advisor, Christophe Salomon; and his technical advisor for industrial affairs, Geoffrey Bouquot.
Ambani’s meeting was described by Salomon to a top official of a European defence company as “confidential and planned as you can imagine with very short notice”.
Ambani, according to an official who was briefed on the meeting, expressed his wish to work with Airbus Helicopters on both commercial and defence helicopters. He is also said to have mentioned a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) “in preparation and the intention to sign during the PM visit”.
When Ambani visited the French Defence Minister’s office, it was known that Prime Minister Modi would make an official visit to France from April 9-11, 2015.
Subsequently, Ambani was part of the PM’s delegation during the visit where the deal for 36 Rafale aircraft was announced by Modi and then French President Francois Hollande in a joint statement issued by the two sides.
Incidentally, Reliance Defence was incorporated on March 28, 2015, in the same week as this meeting.
Emails sent to the official spokesperson of Le Drian last week did not elicit any response. Emails sent to Ambani’s Reliance Group have also gone unanswered.
On April 8, 2015, the then Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, in his media briefing prior to the PM’s visit, downplayed any speculation on the Rafale matter.
“In terms of Rafale, my understanding is that there are discussions underway 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. A leadership visit usually looks at big picture issues even in the security field,” Jaishankar had told the media.
Public sector HAL was the licensed manufacturer of 108 Rafale aircraft in that contract but has no such role in the new deal.
Anil Ambani’s Reliance Group is the “key partner” for Dassault Aviation, manufacturer of Rafale aircraft, for discharge of offsets in the Euro 7.87 billion deal signed between India and France. The total value of offsets from the deal is estimated to be around Rs 30,000 crore, and Reliance’s exact share in that amount has not been officially confirmed so far.
Dassault and Reliance have also formed a joint venture company, Dassault Reliance Aerospace Limited (51% Reliance Aerostructure and 49% Dassault Aviation) which has started an industrial plant in Nagpur for discharge of offsets. Dassault has so far invested Rs 40 crore in the joint venture company which is slated to go up to Rs 400 crore over five years.
Ambani’s role in the Rafale deal had become controversial after a report in The Indian Express on August 31, 2018 highlighted that his film production company had invested money in a film produced by Julie Gayet, the then French President Francois Hollande’s partner, two days before an MoU was signed between the two countries during Hollande’s visit to India on January 26, 2016.
Hollande had then told French website Mediapart on September 21, 2018: “We did not have a say in this. The Indian government proposed this group, and Dassault negotiated with Ambani. We did not have a choice, we took the interlocutor who was given to us.”
Rebutting this claim, Dassault had issued a statement that its partnership with Reliance was its choice. The French government, too, said that it was “in no manner involved,” in the choice of Indian partners by French defence companies. The Ministry of Defence spokesman said that “it is reiterated that neither the Government of India nor the French government had any say in the commercial decision”.