The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld its earlier verdict of December 2018 that found “nothing amiss” in the deal for 36 Rafale jets, dismissing a review petition that sought a criminal probe into the deal.
The move comes as a shot in the arm for the Indian Air Force, which has been battling hard to defend the deal. Though the world's fourth-largest air force, the IAF is concerned about its depleting combat strength. While the first batch of Rafale jets will hit Indian skies only in May the next year, the IAF would reach its desired strength only by 2032.
At present, the IAF has 31 fighter squadrons but needs at least 42 to fight a two-front war. In comparison, Pakistan has 25 combat squadrons, while China has 60.
IAF officials say that during the last two decades, they had lost their edge over the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in the field of long-range weapons and sensors capability.
For example, the IAF would have to scramble two frontline Su 30MKI jets to counter each Pakistani F-16, due to the latter’s superior avionics and missile systems. But now, this will change with the induction of the Rafale.
"With [the] induction [of the] Rafale, the game will be reversed, as the French jets have far better sensors and weapon packages. Now, Pakistan would require at least two F-16s to counter one Rafale," an air force official explained.
Former IAF Chief B.S. Dhanoa, in his last interview to THE WEEK had defended the Rafale deal by saying that there was “no overpricing” and that the government negotiated a very good deal, today claimed that the "we have been vindicated”. Speaking to reporters after the judgement, Dhanoa said, “In December 2018 I had issued a statement that Supreme Court has given a fine judgement and at that time some people said that I was being political, which was incorrect."
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh welcomed the judgement, calling it “a vindication of our government's stand,” adding that “the transparency of our government's decision making has been given approval by Supreme Court.”
In October, Rajnath Singh had flown to Paris to take the delivery of the first Rafale jet on the occasion of Dussehra. He faced criticism at the time for performing shastrapuja (weapon worship) on foreign soil.
Though the decision, by a three-judge bench including the outgoing Chief justice of India, was unanimous, Justice K.M. Joseph has observed that the dismissal did not preclude the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) from looking into any complaints received.
Supreme Court said that they do not feel it necessary to order an FIR or a roving enquiry into Rafale into the Euro 7.8 billion deal.
''It is not the function of this Court to determine the prices nor for that matter can such aspects be dealt with on mere suspicion of persons who decide to approach the Court. The internal mechanism of such pricing would take care of the situation,” the Supreme Court observed, adding that, “On the perusal of documents we had found that one cannot compare apples and oranges. Thus, the pricing of the basic aircraft had to be compared—which was competitively marginally lower.”
The apex court added that “As to what should be loaded on the aircraft or not, and what further pricing should be added, has to be left to the best judgment of the competent authorities.”
Aftermath of the SC decision
Though the Supreme Court has closed the Rafale case legally, the political war of words is still on.
The Congress today stuck to its claims of corruption in the Rafale deal, saying the Supreme Court's judgment in the review petitions filed in the matter has paved the way for a 'comprehensive criminal investigation' into the 'Rafale scam', and demanded a probe by a joint parliamentary committee.
Reacting to the judgment passed by a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by CJI Ranjan Gogoi, the principal opposition party said the verdict has also re-affirmed the party's stance that the court has 'limited jurisdiction under Article 32 of the Constitution' and that the court is not the appropriate forum to decide the issues involved in the purchase of Rafale.
According to the Congress, a major takeaway from the judgment is that whether it is independent agencies, the police or the CBI, all are equipped to undertake investigations with no restrictions and limitations, as in the case of the court, applying to them. It said the order would not stand in the way of the investigating agency taking action.
“As expected and as usual, BJP government and its ministers are misleading the nation on the impact of the judgment. The Supreme Court judgment is not a clean chit but paves the way for full investigation,” said Randeep Surjewala, head of the Congress' communications department.
“The layer of corruption in the Rafale scam can be answered only through a fact-finding impartial JPC investigation,” he said.
Former party chief Rahul Gandhi, who had run an aggressive campaign based on allegations of corruption in the Rafale deal, tweeted that Justice K. M. Joseph's separate but concurring judgment in the matter has opened a huge door for a possible investigation into the alleged scam.
“An investigation must now begin in full earnest. A Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) must also be set up to probe this scam,” Gandhi wrote.
Meanwhile, the BJP demanded an apology from Congress and its former president Rahul Gandhi for defaming Prime Minister Narendra Modi and casting aspersions on the deal.
"The apex court went into all aspects and found no wrongdoing. The court made some key suggestion where they recognised the country needs adequate military strength and empowerment of defence forces," Telecom and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said in a press conference at the BJP headquarters.
"Rahul Gandhi stooped to such a level to attack PM Modi and attributed it to Supreme Court. The Congress lost on three counts for raising Rafale allegations, first in the supreme court, then in Lok Sabha elections as people rejected them and now again in apex court. They have been proved wrong three levels. The SC asked Rahul Gandhi to be careful in future... as he had already apologised," Prasad said.
BJP chief Amit Shah said, "Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss the review petition on Rafale is a befitting reply to those leaders and parties who rely on malicious and baseless campaigns. Today’s decision, yet again, reaffirms Modi government’s credentials as a government which is transparent and corruption-free. Now, it has been proved that the disruption of Parliament over Rafale was a sham. The time could have been better utilised for the welfare of people. After today's rebuke from SC, Congress and its leader, for whom politics is above national interest must apologise to the nation."
The matter is likely to continue to bring Congress and the BJP at odds when the Winter session of Parliament begins on Monday.