The Supreme Court’s verdict dismissing several petitions seeking an inquiry into the deal to acquire 36 Rafale fighter jets from France was expected to answer several questions about the government’s rather confusing positions on the case. Instead, it has only added to the mystery, by making reference to a Comptroller and Auditor General report that does not seem to exist.
One of the main questions around the Rafale deal is the price of the aircraft. The overall deal seems to include a per-aircraft cost that is much higher than one that was offered to the previous government, despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government insisting that it got a better deal. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said in 2017 that she would offer up all details about the Rafale’s pricing to prove this, but the government later refused to do so and insisted that this information was classified.
In its judgment, which dismisses demands for an inquiry into Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision making around the Rafale deal, the court says that the pricing question has already been examined by the Comptroller and Auditor General and even made its way to Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee.
“The material placed before us shows that the Government has not disclosed pricing details, other than the basic price of the aircraft, even to the Parliament, on the ground that sensitivity of pricing details could affect national security, apart from breaching the agreement between the two countries. The pricing details have, however, been shared with the Comptroller and Auditor General (hereinafter referred to as ‘CAG’), and the report of the CAG has been examined by the Public Accounts Committee (hereafter referred to as ‘PAC’). Only a redacted portion of the report was placed before the Parliament, and is in public domain.”
Except a portion of this statement seems to be untrue. The CAG is indeed working on a report looking into the Rafale deal, and so it is likely that the government has shared pricing details with it. But its report is not final, since it has to be tabled in Parliament for that to happen. Moreover, the verdict says that this report of the CAG “has been examined” by the Public Accounts Committee, the Parliamentary panel that oversees government expenditure.
On Friday evening, PAC Chairman Mallikarjun Kharge said that the committee has not been given any report by the CAG, and so there was no question of it having discussed the report. “Where is this report of the CAG?” he said. “Show it to us if it exists.” Kharge said he even spoke to the office of the CAG, which confirmed the fact that its report on the Rafale deal is not yet ready.
Indeed, in November there were reports about the CAG preparing its audit report on the deal, not long after 60 former bureaucrats wrote to the auditor calling for it to not delay the report. The question that follows is, how did the Supreme Court come to learn of this CAG report that is not yet complete, and who told it that this had been submitted to the PAC?
The Supreme Court verdict in the case does throw up a number of questions, even though the Bharatiya Janata Party has immediately taken it as a clean chit. But this one is most confounding. Did the government tell the Supreme Court that there was indeed a CAG report, and that it had been submitted to the PAC? What makes this harder to ascertain is that the government’s submissions to the Supreme Court were made in a sealed cover handed over to the bench, and not through an affidavit under oath. That means that the public cannot see whether this is indeed how the Supreme Court was given this information and judge for itself.
But that still leads to the question: Did the court gather this information from elsewhere, or was it misled by the government? And knowing that this information, as far as is apparent, is false, what does that mean for the reasoning the court uses to conclude that the pricing question has been adequately examined?