The Rs 58,000-crore Rafale deal is back in the news, and not for a complimentary reason. The French news magazine Mediapart last week published a detailed account of alleged corruption in India’s controversial purchase of 36 fighter jets from Dassault Aviation.
In a nutshell, the Mediapart series, titled the “Rafale Papers”, reveals that:
As discovered and subsequently ignored by the French anti-corruption agency AFA, aircraft manufacturer Dassault allegedly to facilitate the deal. Sushen is an accused in the as well.
France’s former head of public prosecution overruled advice by her deputy in the deal, citing the country’s “interests”.
Dassault Gupta “millions of euros” in commissions over a span of 15 years, but the Indian authorities did not act on the evidence against him.
In April 2015, scrapping the Manmohan Singh government’s deal for 126 Rafale jets, Narendra Modi in fly away condition from Dassault.
Modi’s deal was soon embroiled in allegations of corruption and procedural improprieties, not for 126 jets and , particularly Anil Ambani’s Reliance Aerostructure, over the public sector.
The deal was eventually challenged in the Supreme Court, which in 2019.
This was cue for several prominent editors, anchors, columnists, and TV talking heads to proclaim that the Rafale deal was clean as a whistle. Some of them, in fact, had been insisting this even before the top court’s ruling. Now that Mediapart has found that the deal allegedly wasn’t above board, what do they have to say?
Shekhar Gupta, editor of the Print, has long maintained that there wasn’t much to question in the jet deal. In an in September 2018, he claimed, “We now have sufficient evidence to say that there’s a humongous scam in the Rafale deal. Except that this ‘scam’ is spelt as ‘stupidity’.”
About the only thing wrong with the deal, he argued, was its “overcautious” and “unsuccessful” handling by the Modi government by way of not revealing the “simple truths”.
On the day the apex court that it had “no occasion to doubt the process” of decisionmaking in the deal, Gupta declared the Rafale chapter closed and warned of the “perils” of buying into “mythologies and folklore” such as the Rafale controversy.
Questioned about his position on Twitter, he indicated that more evidence was needed for the deal to be regarded as a “scam”.
In 2019, however, after N Ram of the Hindu that the government had granted “exceptional” waivers to Dassault in offset contracts signed in 2016, Gupta that the report made even “skeptics” such as himself rethink about the deal.
We tried contacting the editor multiple times for comment, but without success.
In one of his on the Rafale deal, Ram revealed that Indian and French negotiators had dropped anti-corruption clauses from the intergovernmental agreement for the jets. This revelation has acquired greater significance now that Mediapart has alleged that Dassault Aviation paid commissions to an Indian middleman.
Speaking to Newslaundry about whether the French media’s revelations substantiated the concerns flagged by him, the former Hindu editor said while they needed to be looked at closely, they did partly explain “why anti-corruption clauses were removed just days before the signing of the agreement”.
The reports show the Enforcement Directorate did not open up an investigation against Gupta despite allegedly being aware of his suspicious activities. While acknowledging that admissible evidence such as a money trail akin to one in the Bofors scam was required for the deal to be called suspicious, Ram said, “The problem is to get the final evidence but if there’s a huge delay in the official criminal investigation then its much more difficult to establish the money trail.”
In his 2019 coverage of the deal, Ram had delved into instances where due procedure had allegedly been given a pass over. But even after his reports came out much of the mainstream media remained circumspect to question the deal.
What did he think was the reason? “I think they were intimidated by the central government, there was no doubt about it,” he said. “Some of them were also ideologically in sync with the ruling party.”
Ram confirmed that after the Hindu published his reports on the deal, the Modi government stopped advertising in the paper for a period.
In 2019, when the Supreme Court dismissed petitions seeking a review of its ruling on the Rafale deal, Malini Parthasarthy, chairperson of the Hindu Publishing Group who was formerly editor of the Hindu, declared that Modi's integrity was “unimpeachable and unquestionable”.
Asked what she thought of the deal now in light of the French media’s revelations, she told Newslaundry: “Yes, certainly the new revelations in the French online journal Mediapart about massive commissions to a middleman in the Rafale deal raise dismaying concerns about blatant corruption in defence procurement.”
However, she added, allegations about the specific involvement of the Modi government in allegedly corrupt dealings remained unsubstantiated.
“Therefore,” she argued, “there is really no need to raise afresh the earlier controversy which the Supreme Court judgment had indeed put to rest.”
The Indian Express columnist has in and on Twitter that the Rafale controversy could never be another because a clear money trail indicating bribery hadn’t been unearthed.
Has her view changed in light of the Mediapart investigation? “No, I don’t see the deal differently,” Singh told Newslaundry.
“This is the same platform that originally started the racket about Anil Ambani and that turned out to be just complete garbage,” she added, referring to a quoting former French president Francois Hollande as saying that Anil Ambani’s company was allegedly picked by the Modi government to be a “key partner” in the fighter jet deal.
Singh argued that even if Dassault had paid a million euros to the “middleman”, Sushen Gupta, as claimed by Mediapart, the amount was so small in a deal as big as Rafale that it wouldn’t even count as “a tip”. “In most defence deals there are agents who get a certain fee, I see it as just that,” she added. “Bofors is the only time we’ve seen money paid into secret accounts in Switzerland that turned out to belong to Sonia Gandhi’s best friend.”
“The congress party has been looking for corruption in the Modi government since day one. They have dragged out the Rafale thing. I don’t think there was corruption at all,” Singh claimed, calling the opposition’s allegations “ludicrous”.
She advised journalists to pursue more “worthwhile” subjects than the Rafale deal where she claimed that they are chasing something that “doesn’t exist”.
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, who writes on defence affairs, has defended the deal in and on TV debates and social media, and even tried to school those who find it suspect. In December 2018, after the apex court dismissed pleas for an investigation into the fighter jet deal, he reiterated that there was “no scam” in its latest iteration.
Seeking to discredit the latest Mediapart revelations, Iyer-Mitra, in a on Hindu supremacist website OpIndia, denounced them as “sensationalist” reports by a “French leftist tabloid”.
Contacted for comment about his claims, he replied, “I don’t talk to Newslaundry.”
Then, there are star anchors of TV news channels who have gone so far as to denounce any questioning of the Rafale deal as “fake news”. Then again, that’s par for the course for them. Here’s an example.
Newslaundry tried contacting Arnab Goswami, the Republic TV editor featured in this clip, for comment, but without success.