With former French President Francois Hollande saying the Indian government gave the Rafale manufacturer Dassault no choice but to work with Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence as an offset partner, the Opposition claimed corruption in the fighter aircraft deal has finally been exposed. Both the French government and Dassault have since issued statements, but they do not address the main claim that India pushed for Anil Ambani’s company to get the offset partnership.

The Indian defence ministry also released a statement on Saturday, claiming that the government, as a policy, “has no role” in the selection of an offset partner, which is solely a commercial decision of the foreign manufacturer. It too, however, does not directly address Hollande’s claims.

Former Bharatiya Janata Party minister Arun Shourie, who has termed the Rafale deal as the “biggest defence scam ever”, told Scroll.in that the French government’s response to Hollande’s claims was an attempt to save the commercial contract, given Rafale has few takers. He said the Indian government has the authority to change the offset partner in such agreements. Shourie urged the media to “excavate” all the facts and pin down the government. Excerpts from the interview:

On Friday, the French media quoted the country’s former president, Francois Hollande, as claiming that it was the Indian government which suggested Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence as the Rafale jet maker Dassault’s offset partner. What do you think is the implication of this statement?
He did not say they suggested. He said they left us with no choice. The suggestion was so firm. The first point about this is that it nails yet another lie of this government. They have not yet offered an explanation as to how they changed the deal from 126 planes to 36 planes. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitaraman said we did not have the infrastructure to build 126 planes. But the planes are not going to come today. They will come by 2022. You can spend, by an initial estimate, Rs 1,20,000 crore on one bullet train from Ahmedabad to Mumbai, you can spend Rs 3,500 crore on one statue [Vallabhbhai Patel’s in Gujarat], you can spend Rs 4,000 crore on advertisements of the prime minister, but you cannot spare money for the infrastructure our air force needs. How much more idiotic can a minister get? So, one lie after another. First, the change from 126 planes to 36 planes. Then, the selection of Reliance, a group with a debt of Rs 1,21,000 crore at that time. And they had no experience [making aircraft]. They said they have acquired Pipavav [in Gujarat]. But actually that company was doing work on naval vessels. They were to supply five offshore petrol vessels. That also they have not supplied. As usual, Anil Ambani has raised a dispute with them. That company was in fact taken to the bankruptcy board.

But this is an offset agreement.
If you look at the offset agreement, the work to be done is related to very advanced technology in defence and especially aerodefence. This company had no experience whatsoever. So, this is not one lie. This is such shamelessness.

Photo: Aabid Shafi
Photo: Aabid Shafi

In response to Hollande’s comments, the French government has repeated the position of the Indian government. They have said they had no role in picking the offset partner of Dassault.
It seems they are coordinating now. People do not seem to remember that Dassault was actually a company in dire straits. It was not getting orders. This was a life-saving order for it. You could certainly imply to them [the French government and Dassault] that if you do not now exculpate the Indian government, then we will have to review the contract. This statement is too convenient. Look at Hollande. He was the one who was talking to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi did not talk to the French defence minister. He did not talk to his own foreign secretary. The CEO of Dassault said just 10 days before the deal was signed that they were very satisfied with the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. In fact, he said we have a work share agreement with them. The HAL chairman was there. Now, suddenly Anil Ambani, who has no experience, will help like a magic potion with components that are high technology. Also, if I may say so, producing a film for Hollande’s partner isn’t a part of the offset deal. Maybe that is their core specialisation.

Some people are trying to say this is Hollande’s way of wriggling out of this mess, given the accusation that Reliance was used to fund a film for his partner.
This is the Indian habit. Apologists of the government always paste a motive on somebody. Like someone is saying these things because he was not made a minister. That he has a private agenda. Can’t we turn back and say the French government is issuing this statement because they want to save the contract? These people think by pasting motives and then starting another story in one or two days is how they could manage the headlines.

There is also an argument that this deal could be a case of cronyism but not corruption, that money has not changed hands, that Modi has not taken any money.
How do we know? The money they get for elections. Ask any candidate standing against a BJP candidate and that fellow says the BJP chap is deploying unlimited amounts of money. Where is that money coming from? From Nirav Modi? Yashwant Sinha put it very well: the infrastructure for the payments has been laid because you have got the partner. Otherwise why would a company of Dassault’s long experience go in for a company mired in debt with litigation going on, and which has no experience and was incorporated 10 days earlier?

Photo: Aabid Shafi
Photo: Aabid Shafi

Given the talk of cronyism and corruption, what do you think is the remedy now? Should the deal be redone?
We are not questioning the capabilities of the aircraft. For that you need to rely on the Indian Air Force. They did exercises between 2007 and 2012 for five years. So, we rely on them. The question is what else happened? As we [Shourie, fellow former BJP minister Yashwant Sinha, and lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan] showed in our second press conference, there is a specific procedure which has been laid down for defence acquisitions. And every single procedure was overturned by the prime minister personally. It is on record that the foreign secretary did not know about the agreement until two days before it was signed. It is clear Manohar Parrikar, then defence minister, did not know. It is clear that the CEO of Dassault did not know. There are three statements of Parrikar from that time in which you can clearly see that he is distancing himself from the decision. He says it is Modi’s decision and I support it. But Modi does not have the authority to decide. You are trying to say that some individual can knock off the number of planes from 126 to 36 and stop its production in India even while proclaiming Make in India? He does not have that authority under the defence procurement policy issued by his own government.

There is also the question of how a government, in a commercial deal that involves national security and important infrastructure addition to the air force, can say we had nothing to do with it.
My point is the guidelines on offset clearly state that every offset proposal shall be processed by the acquisitions manager and shall be approved by the defence minister. Second, it says the government has the right at all times to change the offset partner. It has just been revealed that the Russians, for supplying assault rifles, wanted to have a particular partner and they were denied. Who denied it? The government. See, bullies are always nervous. Now these people are nervous. Russians cleverly chose [Gautam] Adani as their offset partner, who also has no experience in this sector, but has the same qualifications as Anil Ambani. They thought now again someone will say crony capitalism, so don’t come with Adani, come with somebody else. So, how can they say they don’t have any authority? Forget the Adani incident. Look at the guidelines which say that every proposal shall be processed by the defence acquisitions manager and shall be approved by the defence minister.

Photo: Aabid Shafi
Photo: Aabid Shafi

What would be the effect if the Indian government now says the former French president, who was the sovereign head when the agreement was inked, is lying?
He was the very person Modi was embracing. So the very fellow now turns out to be a liar, is it? It is not just about with whose government but also with whom [they inked the deal].

What is the next logical step?
I will tell you. The next step is for the media. Forget the damned governments, the media should persevere. Our job is not to be grasshoppers but crocodiles. When you get someone’s leg, never leave it. This government is caught. Instead of parroting the nonsense and lies, the media should excavate the facts on its own. It should collaborate with journalists in France. The government is not able to explain the drop from 126 planes to 36 planes. Then they said they are working on a deal for 110 planes. All right, then you expedite it. But they are so frightened that they are not going to go ahead with that also.

The defence ministry, rather bizarrely, said on Friday they were trying to verify Hollande’s comments. How will they verify? What do they mean?
They must have made an attempt. Maybe through the partner or the filmmaker: please have mercy on us, say you were quoted out of context. Some such Indian nonsense.

Some people are approaching the Supreme Court.
No. Don’t rely on the Supreme Court. This type of petition is a contrived petition, like in the judge [Brijgopal Harkishan] Loya case. The judgement [in that case] is a blot on the Supreme Court itself, as I have written in my book.