The Supreme Court’s decision to reject the Centre’s objections over the admissibility of “leaked” documents on Rafale deal, cited in the review petitions, is a victory for the cause of transparency and accountability. The apex court has displayed open-mindedness to examine the new material that has been brought to its notice. This could lead to a fresh examination of the agreement for the purchase of 36 fighter jets from France, something that the NDA government has been stonewalling citing national security clause. The consequences of the court’s decision could be embarrassing for the Narendra Modi government because the impugned documents pertaining to the deal, published by a leading national daily, support three important allegations: One, the Prime Minister’s Office held parallel negotiations with the French suppliers. Two, the price of the fighter jets is much higher than the deal negotiated by the previous government. Three, several clauses — like the requirement of a bank guarantee — were either altered or waived to ensure that Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence was selected as an offset partner of Dassault, the French aviation company. Former Union ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie, and lawyer Prashant Bhushan have sought a review of an earlier SC judgment giving a clean chit to the deal, saying the documents offered fresh and incriminating evidence. Since the government has accepted that the documents are not forged but ‘photocopied’, the court can now examine them for any evidence of corruption in the deal. If it finds enough material, it can order a court-monitored probe.
As of now, the court’s decision, coming in the middle of a general election, implies three things: One, details of the Rafale deal can’t be kept away from the public on the pretext of national security. Two, any evidence, regardless of the source, is admissible in a court. Three, freedom of the media can’t be curtailed with threats of criminal action or by invoking the Official Secrets Act. The government must come clean and clear the doubts being raised by the opposition parties. No doubt, the Rafale pot will be kept boiling as the opposition has found fresh ammunition to attack the government during the ongoing poll campaigning. The main charge against the Narendra Modi government is that it had not only overpaid for the Rafale jets but also promoted crony capitalism by handing over the contract to the Anil Ambani-owned company in the name of fulfilling the offset obligations while overlooking state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). The question is certainly not about the efficacy of Rafale aircraft to meet the needs of the Indian Air Force but about the transparency of the negotiation process. It is about the allegations of inflated costs and of doling out undue favours.