Taking up requests for an investigation into the Rafale jet deal, the Supreme Court today asked the government for details of pricing and the process of selecting Anil Ambani’s defence firm as Indian partner. The information is classified, the government said, after which the court asked for a written submission within 10 days that these details cannot be shared.
In the last hearing, the court had asked for details of the decision-making process that led to the deal but had emphasized that it would not get into “pricing or suitability” of the jets.
Today, the court said, “We would like the details of pricing and cost to be submitted to the Supreme Court in a sealed cover.” But it agreed that “strategic and confidential” information need not be disclosed.
The government argued that pricing was not revealed in parliament and the earlier government had also not disclosed details of a previous deal. Say it in an affidavit, Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi told the government’s lawyer.
The court is hearing four petitions, including those by former ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie, questioning the jet deal between India and France and the choice of Anil Ambani’s inexperienced Reliance Defence as India partner for Rafale maker Dassault. The petitions have sought a court-monitored CBI investigation into the procurement of the jets.
“That you will have to wait,” the Chief Justice said, adding, “Let CBI put its house in order first.”
Mr Shourie called the court’s order a “very, very substantial step forward” in the controversy. “Confidentiality does not relate to price, only technical specifications. It will be subject to challenge. It will be difficult to say pricing is confidential,” Mr Shourie told NDTV.
Beginning the hearing, the judges noted that the “suitability of the jet and its utility” has not been questioned. “What had been questioned is the bonafide of the decision-making and price,” they said.
Petitions before the court call for an investigation into the Rs. 59,000 crore deal for 36 fighters from Dassault, announced in 2016 after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s talks in Paris with then French president Francois Hollande.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi has led the opposition charge against the Rafale deal, repeatedly accusing the government of negotiating a not-so-favourable contract just to benefit Anil Ambani. Both the government and the industrialist have denied the charge.
The political row escalated sharply after Francois Hollande said in an interview last month that France had no role in the selection of Anil Ambani’s company as India partner.
The previous Congress-led UPA government had negotiated with Dassault for 126 Rafale jets under which 18 jets were to be supplied in a fly-away condition and 108 were to be manufactured in India along with state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). However, the UPA could not seal the deal.
In the deal negotiated by the new government, Anil Ambani’s firm became Dassault’s offset partner with no experience in the field. As part of the offset clause, Dassault has to ensure that business worth at least half the money – Rs. 30,000 – is generated in India.
The Rafale fighter is a twin-engine Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) that Indian Air Force Chief BS Dhanoa says can be a “game-changer” and booster for India’s defence.