The Supreme Court on Wednesday reserved its verdict on a batch of petitions seeking a Central Bureau of Investigation inquiry into the government’s procurement of 36 Rafale fighter jets from French company Dassault Aviation, Live Law reported. The top court said the pricing details of the controversial jet deal need not be discussed now.
Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and justices SK Kaul and KM Joseph are hearing the petitions filed by lawyer Prashant Bhushan, and former Bharatiya Janata Party leaders Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie. “It needs to be debated only if the court decides that aspects on pricing needs to come in public domain,” Gogoi said.
The Congress has accused the government of overpaying for the fighter aircraft and claimed that the deal has benefitted businessman Anil Ambani. Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s allegations were bolstered by former French President Francois Hollande’s claim in September that the Indian government had proposed the name of Ambani’s Reliance Defence for the offset obligations in the deal.
Bhushan told the court that apart from the procedure, offset and pricing aspects of the deal, claims of the “circumventing of tender by going for an inter-governmental agreement” also need to be considered. The object of the inter-governmental agreement was ‘only to obviate the need for a tender’, he claimed.
Meanwhile, Attorney General KK Venugopal demanded that the petitioners identify the person who told them details of the deal’s pricing technicalities. “How did he [Bhushan] get it?” Venugopal asked. “It is supposed to be a secret. He should disclose his source.”
Bhushan said he procured the information from a 2008 book and the information had been disclosed twice in Parliament. “If it is a matter of national security, then the government has compromised national security twice by disclosing it in Parliament,” he added.
Venugopal said the government wanted to maintain secrecy because it involves weaponry and avionics. “If these are disclosed our adversaries will be able to know about what weaponry and avionics we have,” the government counsel said. “What Your Lordships should consider is whether the court is competent to judicially review this on the basis of what has been submitted [by the petitioners].”
Venugopal claimed that state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited had asked for more than twice the manufacturing time as compared to Dassault. “That itself was a negative factor,” he said, explaining why the contract was given to the private firm.
The Centre brought in the Deputy Chief of Air Staff Air Marshal VR Chaudhari and two other officers from the Indian Air Force after the Supreme Court sought their assistance, PTI reported. “We are dealing with the requirements of the Air Force and would like to ask an Air Force officer on Rafale jets,” it said.
The officers told the court that the Sukhoi 30s, a 3.5 generation aircraft, were the latest inductees and that the Air Force does not possess any fourth- or fifth-generation aircraft.
“The IAF has been writing to us that it will be difficult for them to defend our country due to shortage of aircraft, we have fallen behind a lot,” Venugopal said while concluding his argument.
On Monday, the Centre submitted an affidavit that says the procurement process laid down in the Defence Procurement Procedure, 2013, had been followed. On October 31, the top court had asked the Centre to submit more details – including pricing and strategic details – related to the Rafale aircraft deal in a sealed cover in 10 days.