Recent press reports have stated that the Congress has created multiple committees to raise the issue of the Rafale deal at different levels across the nation. It has formed a specific committee to regularly project the Rafale deal in Parliament. In its view, this is the scam of the present NDA government which can cause a situation similar to the one created for the Congress after the Bofors deal.
In recent times and in various discussions in the media, Congress members have been caught on the wrong foot. They have proved that while they remain unaware of all the facts, they perhaps sense the deal is fine. However, they have desperately adopted this approach seeking to embarrass the government because of its binding on the non-disclosure clause, which is a part of the deal.
Apart from the fact that the Congress has begun twisting facts and figures on the Rafale deal, it is also ignoring that it did nothing for defence preparedness during its entire tenyear tenure, only because A K Antony saw the Bofors ghost behind every deal.
In the same vein, the Congress has stated that the military lacks capability because of lack of funds. It fails to mention that almost the entire modernisation budget during the UPA rule was surrendered because Antony lacked the guts to spend.
There has been no election since 1989 where Bofors has not emerged to indicate the corruption within the Congress. Every time Bofors is raised in Parliament, the Congress is left redfaced. It happened recently too. The same would re-emerge prior to next elections.
Further, with the AgustaWestland helicopter deal investigation again gathering steam, some of its high-profile supporters would soon be roped in. There is a strong likelihood of names emerging just before elections, pushing the Congress to the defensive. It has impacted Congress vote banks in every election since 2014.
Former minister P Chidambaram is already under investigation in multiple cases by the ED.
Thus, the Congress needs to adopt a strategy by which it can counter any BJP offensive on its corruption cases. By adopting the basic military strategy of ‘offense is the best defence’ it is seeking to deflect any BJP salvo even before it is launched.
It hopes that by being the first to raise a corruption case, it could result in the BJP defending itself, rather than accusing the Congress of their corruption cases under probe by multiple agencies, with foreign collaborators and agents still on the run. The Congress, while raising questions on Rafale, have ignored basic logic. The cost of an aircraft, like that of a car, involves a basic price with all other add-on equipment, maintenance and servicing charges being extra. These are neither included in detail in the Request for Proposal (RFP) nor checked during the trials phase.
Each nation which purchases an aircraft decides on the configuration which it requires, based on its own security needs and the threat which it faces. Each add-on like that of a car comes with additional costs. The Congress, while raising the subject of cost, has never mentioned the cost of the additional accessories as demanded by the air force.
The RFP for these aircraft was issued in 2007. From then to 2011 the air force conducted a series of trial evaluations to finalize the aircraft. Finally, the Rafale and Eurofighter Tycoon were shortlisted. In 2012, the Rafale was declared the L1 bidder, which implied that its price was the lowest.
That Eurofighter subsequently offered a discount implied nothing. From 2012 to 2014 (all during UPA rule), contract negotiations remained inconclusive mainly due to lack of agreement on the terms of the proposal and cost. It did appear that the UPA government was not serious in its endeavours, as it feared that akin to Bofors, another ghost may haunt the party for decades. Surprisingly the UPA never went for a government-to-government deal for any purchase, an approach the NDA has adopted for almost all deals.
The issue of 126 aircraft, as visualized by the air force was an operational requirement. Assembling them in India would have been unsustainable as the present pricing of the Tejas indicates. The Tejas is being priced higher than better variants in the world market. Dassault had visited HAL but was surprised to learn that HAL was quoting almost double the man hours for assembling 126 aircraft as evaluated by them, which would have sent costs skyrocketing.
More important is the fact that such a purchase would have blocked defence procurement for a prolonged period as there would have been a shortage of funds. Hence, the government, considering long term finances, chose to reduce the number to the barest minimum essential. It then decided to push the air force to procure its balance requirement from the indigenously manufactured Tejas.
It goes to the credit of the government that it did not follow the Congress model or run away from enhancing defence preparedness, post the raising of calls of a scam on the Rafale. The Congress demand for releasing details of the configuration and cost is to expect the government to break an international agreement, inked during the UPA regime.
Developing military capabilities remains a matter of concern, as threats are only increasing by the day. Lack of a strong defensive and counter-strike capability would only open doors to adventurism by adversaries.
The Congress strategy of seeking to pre-empt the government from re-raising the Bofors or AgustaWestland deal may backfire as the government would only push the investigation faster. The BJP, aware of the Congress approach would plan its own counter strategy to hit the Congress where it would hurt.
This would only make the forthcoming election campaigning murkier and muddier and draw in national security to a level never openly discussed before in electioneering.
The writer is a retired Major-General of the Indian Army. (Courtesy: TS)