Though Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s continuing campaign on the Rafale jet deal has unsettled the Bharatiya Janata Party and pushed it on the defensive, the ongoing controversy is yet to resonate with the masses.

The Opposition has alleged two irregularities in the deal to buy 36 fighter jets from France’s Dassault Aviation for Rs 58,000 crore. First, it claims that the price of the jets is grossly inflated and far higher than that being negotiated by the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government. Second, it claims that the terms of the deal were changed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to benefit industrialist Anil Ambani.

The controversy has become the subject of animated discussion on television channels and is gradually emerging as a talking point among the country’s elite. It has, however, failed to evoke the kind of outrage and anger that was witnessed in the eighties when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was engulfed in a controversy over the purchase of the Bofors gun from Sweden. To that extent, it can be said that Rahul Gandhi has failed to make Rafale into a hot-button electoral issue

While the Congress believes the Rafale deal will snowball into a major issue in the coming days, its inability to excite the electorate about the irregularities in the defence agreement is being attributed largely to the Congress president’s poor articulation of the key facts.

Party insiders admitted that though Gandhi is armed with powerful facts, he is unable to communicate these in a way so as to connect with his audience. He has a tendency to repeat the same points giving the distinct impression that he has rehearsed his arguments, and is unable to go beyond the written script. They maintain that the Congress needs someone like Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad Yadav who has the necessary communication skills to get the message across in an idiom which can be understood by a rustic audience. A senior Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh said, “People in villages often ask us: ‘What is all this controversy over the ‘rakhel’ [mistress] brought from France.’”

Rafale deal and elections

As has been often pointed out, the difference between the Rafale story and the Bofors scandal is also that there is no credible leader like VP Singh to take it to the masses. Moreover, the media had pursued the Bofors deal doggedly, but that is not the case now. Above all, when the Bofors controversy erupted, Rajiv Gandhi had become a hated figure among the urban middle classes, which consequently was willing to believe the worst of him. Modi, on the other hand, has not fallen from grace yet. In fact, the middle class remains smitten by him even four years after he came to power, and are not convinced that he has benefitted personally from the Rafale deal. Despite Rahul Gandhi’s pointed references in past days about how the prime minister had favoured Ambani by tweaking the Rafale agreement to make Ambani’s company the offset partner for Dassault Aviation, there is no proof of any money trail leading to him.

Consequently, the Congress is banking on the petitions on the Rafale deal currently pending before the Supreme Court to keep the issue alive. In its hearing on Wednesday, the apex court asked for details from the Centre about the decision-making process adopted by it before it finalised the Rafale deal with France. It has directed that these details be submitted in a sealed envelope on October 29 and fixed the next hearing for October 31. Though the three-member bench clarified that it was not seeking details on the pricing and technical aspects of the deal, the Congress is hoping the case will linger on in the courts for a sufficient length of time for it to become a talking point in the forthcoming Assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, which would give a fillip to the party’s campaign against the BJP, especially Modi. On the flip side, the Congress is worried that the case may not be prolonged and could be dismissed soon, which could then derail its campaign on corruption against Modi.

The Congress is similarly concerned that the Comptroller and Auditor General, which is said to be scrutinising the financial aspect of the Rafale jet deal, may rush to absolve the Modi government of any wrong-doing before the year-end Assembly polls. It is for this reason that a delegation of Congress leaders has made two trips to the Comptroller and Auditor General office to submit what the party described as fresh revelations on the defence pact, which would necessarily entail a detailed study by the auditors and buy them time.

Election gamble

While admitting that the Rafale controversy has not begun to hurt the Modi government yet, Congress strategists believe this could all change if their party does well in the coming Assembly polls. In that case, the issues raised by the Congress about the suspected irregularities in the Rafale agreement would be propelled to the political centre stage ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Consequently, an undeterred Rahul Gandhi has decided to soldier on. For the past several months, he has kept up a consistent campaign against Modi, accusing him of corruption in the deal. Whether it is a debate in the Lok Sabha, a meeting with students in the United Kingdom or an election meeting in the poll-bound states, the Nehru-Gandhi scion has used every platform and opportunity to launch a personal attack against Modi for changing the jet deal to benefit Ambani, and for purchasing the planes at a far higher cost.

Though Rahul Gandhi has got no support on this issue from other Opposition parties, he has, nevertheless, persisted with his accusations. In fact, he has taken the risk of leading the battle instead of leaving it to senior party leaders and official spokespersons to do the talking. On Thursday, the Congress chief addressed his third press conference on this issue where he reiterated that Modi is corrupt and described him as Anil Ambani’s chowkidar.

Rahul Gandhi’s latest round of allegations against the prime minister followed a report in the French investigative website Mediapart, which said that Dassault Aviation’s internal documents accessed by them showed company officials saying that it was “mandatory” for the French aircraft manufacturer to pick Ambani as its offset partner in order to finalise purchase of the jets with India. Demanding that Modi’s role be investigated, Rahul Gandhi said, “The Prime Minister is involved in corruption…he should be probed. The prime minister had declared that he will serve as the nation’s chowkidar but instead he has become Anil Ambani’s chowkidar.”

The coming months will show if Rahul Gandhi’s gamble has paid off. After all, his political opponents are not going to leave the field open for the Congress. Modi and BJP president Amit Shah are bound to hit back soon.