21st JANUARY 2019

A) Clear the air: on Rafale deal

The Fog Of Doubt Over The Rafale Deal Can Be Lifted Only With Greater Transparency

That troubling questions about the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets will persist despite a clean chit of sorts from the Supreme Court, was demonstrated compellingly last week following The Hindu’s detailed investigation into the deal. It showed that in comparison to the bid under the UPA there was an overall escalation in the price of each jet in the 2016 deal struck by the Modi government, because the price of 13 India Specific Enhancements (ISEs), essentially upgrades that were sought on the bare-bones aircraft, was spread over 36 jets as opposed to the original 126. Significantly, as The Hindu’s investigation revealed, three Defence Ministry officials in the seven-member Indian Negotiating Team objected to the €1.3 billion assigned to ISEs; it was eventually approved by a narrow 4-3 majority on the ground that ISEs are a non-recurring cost. But this raises an obvious and perplexing question: since they are a non-recurring cost, why did the government drop, or fail to secure, the follow-on provision, which would have given India the option to purchase more Rafales, and reduce the per-aircraft price by spreading the design and development costs involved in the upgrades? After all, the follow-on clause was a part of the deal under negotiation under the UPA government. The import of the question assumes an altogether different dimension given that the Air Force, with an old and depleting fleet, has required — and for some two decades now — far greater numbers of Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) like the Rafale. Last year, the government issued a Request for Information for 110 fighters, of which about 15% will be acquired in a flyaway condition and the remainder manufactured under the strategic partnership route. With the same manufacturers back in thebidding fray, we are in a way back to where we were — in other words, to a place that casts doubts on the vigour of India’s long-term planning when it comes to defence preparedness.

Owing to a mix of investigation, statements and government leaks, much of the information about the pricing, the acquisition process and the ISEs are already in the public domain. It is nobody’s case that information that could impact the aircraft’s operational capability or jeopardise national security should be shared, but the government has been less than willing to come forward to address the issue of pricing. Instead it has been taking cover, unconvincingly, under the secrecy clause in the general security agreement signed between India and France in 2008. Given the fog of doubt over a number of issues, it is unclear why it doesn’t adopt a more accommodating posture by arranging private briefings for Opposition leaders and permitting a JPC to examine the deal. Without this, the general presumption will be that it has something to hide.

B) Unity and strength: on the Opposition rally

Opposition Parties Need A Cohesive Framework To Be A Viable Alternative To The BJP

It is always easier to agree on the ends than on the means. Opposition parties that came together at the Kolkata rally hosted by Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee had a commonality of purpose — defeating the Bharatiya Janata Party. But little else. To share a dais and hold hands is one thing; to share seats and work in tandem is quite another. Even so, for over 20 parties, big and small, some with overlapping support bases, to come together on one platform is in itself remarkable. It is the dominance of the BJP under Prime Minister Narendra Modi beginning with the 2014 Lok Sabha election that has forced these parties to yoke themselves together. Alliancesthat had seemed impossible just a year ago, such as those between the SP and the BSP in Uttar Pradesh, the TDP and the Congress in Andhra Pradesh, and the Congress and the JD(S) in Karnataka now have a settled look. The Trinamool and Ms. Banerjee have also shifted positions to move toward the formation of a national-level alternative to the BJP, giving up the idea of a federal front of regional parties opposed to both the Congress and the BJP. The federal front wasessentially the brainchild of the TRS founder K. Chandrasekhar Rao, who could notcountenance being part of a front that included his principal rival, the Congress. Ms. Banerjee, who seemed warm to the idea initially, was quick to realise such a formation would be unable to mount a serious challenge to the BJP. In terms of optics, the Kolkata rally was a show of strength for Ms. Banerjee. At the same time, it seems to have imparted a fresh impulse to the efforts to put together a viable, if not entirely cohesive, alternative to the BJP.

However, though all these parties are agreed on flushing out the BJP, there is still the issue of reaching agreements at the State level, and arriving at a consensus on a common manifesto of policies and programmes. The SP and the BSP have agreed on seat-sharing but have notaccommodated the Congress; also, negotiations with another ally, the RLD, are yet toconclude. The Congress and the JD(S) are partners in government, but their vote banks overlapgeographically. Seat-sharing is likely to be akin to navigating a minefield. There is also no telling how an alliance between the Congress and the TDP, bitter rivals hitherto, will work on the ground. Besides, the support bases of these parties are varied socio-economically, and without a shared agenda for governance the political unity at the leadership level might be difficult tosustain. Therefore, it was perhaps no surprise that the rally avoided the contentious issue of naming a prime ministerial candidate, leaving the issue to be decided after the election. The Opposition parties may have made a good start, but there is much they need to settle among themselves to mount a serious challenge in 2019.