by Sreemoy Talukdar

It is a little heartbreaking and depressing to see men in uniform come out in numbers to defend the Rafale and issue a clarion call not to ground the contract. Heartbreaking, because it couldn’t have been easy for former and serving air chiefs and other high-ranking officers — all accomplished and disciplined men — to wade into a political dogfight at the risk of being made into a target.

That they felt compelled to do so points to the cynicism and wretchedness of our political discourse where a government-to-government deal — a result of tough negotiations by senior officers of the Indian Air Force — has fallen prey to political opportunism. And since the IAF was fully involved in the process and led the negotiations any smear campaign against the deal also calls into question the honour and integrity of these officers. It calls into question their commitment to the nation.

Equally worrying is the possibility that this campaign of misinformation may delay the delivery of aircraft or complicate the proceedings. That may serve to deplete the morale of our armed forces and exacerbate the vulnerability of India’s security architecture in a complex and volatile neighbourhood.

Officer after officer, some involved in the negotiation that went on for months, are expressing their anguish and giving a vote of confidence to the deal. And true to the depressing public discourse around Rafale, they are being targeted and maligned. It is being suggested that the IAF top brass is “lying” under pressure. This is tragic and unacceptable.

Last Thursday, Air Marshal Raghunath Nambiar, Deputy Chief of Air Staff, dismissed allegations that there was any cost escalation in the NDA government-brokered Rafale deal — the core charge levelled by Congress against Narendra Modi.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi has alleged that the price per fighter aircraft “magically” jumped from Rs 540 crore under UPA to Rs 1,600 crore under the NDA government. The Gandhi dynast has in his accusations quoted four different Rafale prices in five months. On 29 April at the Jan Akrosh rally in New Delhi, Rahul quoted Rs 700 crore as the price per jet under Manmohan Singh government. On 20 July, during his no-trust motion speech in Parliament, the cost of each Rafale (under UPA) came down to Rs 520 crore. More than a couple of weeks later in Raipur, the Congress president revised the price to Rs 540 crore. On 11 August, he quoted two different prices — Rs 520 crore and Rs 540 crore — in two minutes. Two days later in Hyderabad, the price of each jet became Rs 526 crore during Rahul’s rally in Hyderabad, as India Today points out in a fact-checking report.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of a seminar in New Delhi, Air Marshal Nambiar said: “This, who are claiming such numbers, I think they are misinformed and probably not aware of the facts that are known to us in the Indian Air Force… As we are the ones who were very much part of the negotiations with the French government. And we have the facts with us.” He also held that “the Rafale we have gone for is substantially lower than the price that was on the table in 2008” and refuted claims that there was an irregularity in offset contract procedure, saying that “there is no truth in those allegations.”

On Wednesday, Air Marshal SBP Sinha, chief of the IAF’s Central Command, who was closely involved with negotiations in his capacity as Deputy Chief of Air Staff, reiterated that India has got the deadly fighter aircraft at the best price. He also said that terms of the deal include “the latest weapons, sensors, a better price and delivery terms from Dassault” and it “will overwhelm our adversaries.”

Shiv Aroor reports in Livefist that Air Marshal Sinha offered 10 reasons why the current deal is cleaner, better and more economical than any earlier one during Wednesday’s formal presentation. Incidentally, Air Marshal Sinha was the “point man for negotiations from Air Force Headquarters during the collapsed earlier negotiations”, adds the report.

And on Wednesday, Air Force chief BS Dhanoa issued a reminder that India is facing a “grave threat” from its adversaries and backed the government’s actions. “By providing the Rafale and S-400 (Russian surface-to-air missile defence system), the government is strengthening the IAF to counter the shortfalls of our depleting numbers,” he told reporters on the sidelines of an IAF seminar.

Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa also refuted Opposition allegations that the government has shortchanged the armed forces by settling for 36 aircraft instead of the planned 126 (part of UPA-era negotiation that remained stalled).

“Whenever there is an inter-governmental agreement (IGA), always two squadrons (are) bought,” he told reporters, adding that emergency purchases of aircraft are done through the IGA route to mitigate crises. “In January 1983 Pakistan bought F-16s and we got two squadrons of Mig-21 from Russia. We also bought two squadrons of Mirage 2000 from France,” he was quoted, as saying.

Apart from senior serving officers, retired air chiefs too have lent their voice, expressing anguish that India cannot afford to target defence acquisitions to settle narrow political scores and harm country’s security interests.

In a recent piece titled Don’t ground the Rafale, published in Indian Express, former Chief of Air Staff S Krishnaswamy writes: “The Opposition is dragging the government to make a public statement knowing well that secrecy clauses in inter-governmental agreements do not permit such disclosure. The government cannot get into a dispute by public disclosure of information they had agreed to protect.”

He proposes that Opposition’s demand to know the cost details could be met by holding a “secret session” in Lok Sabha under clause 245-252 of Rules of Procedure without divulging the details in public and dishonoring the contract. The former air chief also clarifies that UPA “did not sign the deal”, “Dassault Aviation refused to take responsibility for the work-share of HAL” and the resultant delay pushed the Air Force “into a corner” and harmed its operational efficiency. Under the circumstances, writes Chief of Air Staff (Retd) Krishnaswamy, the IAF projected an urgent need to procure two squadrons of advanced fighter aircraft and the government got a comprehensive package in the quickest possible way “to operationalize a new induction”.

The former air chief signs off with a warning that “arguments devoid of merit have an adverse effect on our credibility” but for Congress, some disgruntled, superannuated BJP members and others with vested interests, national security and India’s credibility are negotiable components in the existential need to target the prime minister.

Not even the head of a foreign state has been spared. French president Emmanuel Macron’s name was dragged through the political dirt in India despite France issuing an official rebuttal to claims that there were no secrecy clauses in the pact.

Congress’ desperation is understandable. Despite its sustained and concerted efforts, Modi’s shield of incorruptibility appears impregnable. He is not seen as a corrupt leader. In fact, by taking some tough measures, the prime minister has reinforced his tough-on-corruption image. His popularity may have taken a dip but even after four years at Centre, Modi still stays comfortably ahead of his nearest competitor.

This is particularly inconvenient for the Congress because scams were the only talking points in the last few years of UPA regime and these allegations were thought to have contributed to its defeat. The party still suffers from the memory of these scams and appears at a permanent disadvantage in taking the moral high ground on corruption. For these various reasons, it is important for the Congress to sort of ‘level the playing field’ by dragging Modi down several notches from his perch of incorruptibility.

This is why Congress has been so vocal about “Rafale scam”. Trouble is, its allegations have so far lacked credibility and the party’s campaign is not getting enough traction. Even its allies are not particularly enthusiastic about this so-called scam.

As Union finance minister Arun Jaitley said in a recent interview to ANI, “They do not have a single charge with any form of evidence or material, not a shred of it, as far as any wrong practices or corruption is concerned. So they manufacture a charge. And if you have no facts, just keep repeating a false quote.” Amid this political game, the men in uniform are taking the hit.