November 17, 2017, now seems like an impossibly long time ago in the context of the Rafale deal. It was on that day that Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman addressed a press conference and promised that the difference between her government and the Congress, particularly on how it decided to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets instead of the 126 that were being negotiated earlier, would be transparency. “There is nothing that is going to stick on this government because everything is being done transparently and as per procedure,” Sitharaman had said. “There is just no comparison between the ways in which [Congress-led] UPA [United Progressive Alliance] took decisions and the way in which NDA takes decisions, because we have made both simpler, smoother, faster and above all transparent.”
Simpler, smoother and maybe even faster might be true. But the Bharatiya Janata Party-run government’s behaviour cannot by any definition be described as transparent. To this day it is unclear why Prime Minister Narendra Modi altered the deal from 126 jets to 36 jets, without keeping his own ministers, bureaucrats or the Air Force in the loop. To this day, we do not have a definitive answer on the price of the planes, despite Sitharaman saying at that press conference, “I’m not running away from giving you specific numbers... because those are public money.” To this day it is unclear why an open tender to discover the best price was not held, if indeed the package that Dassault, Rafale’s manufacturer, is now giving India is radically different from the one the previous government was negotiating.
And to this day, there is not a straightforward answer on whether the government proposed Anil Ambani’s Reliance Group as part of a “new formula” for the Rafale deal, as former French President Francois Hollande has alleged. Of course, the Indian government has insisted that it had no role in Dassault’s decision to finally go with Anil Ambani’s firm as part of its obligations under the deal. But has it categorically stated that it did not propose Reliance Defence? Sure, the government has suggested that Hollande somehow coordinated his statement with Congress President Rahul Gandhi. But has it definitely denied his remarks and said that the former French President is lying?
The BJP government came to power on an anti-corruption platform, accusing the Congress-run United Progressive Alliance of all sorts of crony actions and greased palms. It promised development. It insisted that power would be accountable. The Rafale deal has shown all this to be false: Modi made a decision without any consultation, with no regard for procedure, and there are now credible allegations of corruption or at least crony capitalism from no less than the former foreign head of state that negotiated the deal.
And when asked questions about it, the government and party have decided to point fingers at Pakistan. Is this what Modi’s transparency looks like?