The current kerfuffle over the Rs 57,000 crore Rafale deal signed with France by the NDA government is the Bofors Redux of this age

History repeats itself. In politics, more farcically so. Leaders selectively invoke the Moirai of political fatalism to punish and pulverise their opponents. Not only is the script readily available in the archaic archives of scandal and spin, the weapons of crass destruction, too, are accessible to denouncers on a warpath. The current kerfuffle over the Rs 57,000 crore Rafale deal signed with France by the NDA government is the Bofors Redux of this age.

Karma is an itch; just as in 1986 the entire non-Congress Opposition led by rebel Congress leader VP Singh raked up the Rs 1,600 crore Bofors deal to discredit and defeat Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, this time the Opposition has banded together to slay the Modi dragon in 2019. For the past few weeks, leaders from both the BJP and the Opposition have been engaged in a vitriolic war of words over the purchase agreement of the French fighter planes. Has Rahul Gandhi become a cynical conjurer in power’s hall of mirrors?

He seems to have taken a cue from the past and has adopted the techniques, slogans, narrative and nuances VP Singh had deployed to vilify his father Rajiv, who was called a chor (thief) inside and outside Parliament. Decades later, Rahul is returning the compliment with extra ferocity and regularity. The entire Congress establishment has been pressed into service to trend the hashtag “DeshkaChowkidarchorhai” to tar the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In return, the BJP widened its mortar range with “RahulKaKhandanChorHai”. No student of political history can miss the commonalities between Bofors and Rafale, which are decades apart in time but uncomfortably close in the blame game:

Both Bofors and Rafale hit the headlines just a year before Lok Sabha elections.

The main target then and now—the Prime Minister of India.

Individuals perceived to be close to the prime minister accused of influencing the contracts. While in 1989, Ottavio Quattrocchi, an Italian businessman close to the Gandhis was suspected to be the main force and beneficiary of the Bofors contract, now Anil Ambani is portrayed as the biggest gainer of the Rafale agreement.

The Opposition had charged Rajiv’s PMO with driving the Bofors deal through personal negotiations with Swedish leaders. Now the Congress is accusing Modi of following the same tactic by imposing Ambani as a joint venture partner with Dassault Aviation, Rafale’s manufacturers.

In 1989, the combined Opposition including the BJP had demanded a Joint Parliamentary Committee to probe the Bofors deal. It’s the same story today, but with the BJP at the receiving end.

The Bofors fire was sparked by a Swedish radio report. The first match on Rafale was struck by French website Mediapart probing a quid pro quo between Reliance, which had partially financed a movie by Julie Gayet, and her partner, French President Francois Hollande, who was in power when the aircraft deal was struck. In 1987, Swedish national radio had announced that 33 million Swedish kroner (Rs 6.5 crore) were paid to an Indian middleman to broker the sale of Bofors guns to India. Hollande told Mediapart that Ambani was the Indian government’s choice and he had no say in the matter.

The defence by the Congress government then and the BJP now is eerily similar. When the political Fahrenheit began to make Rajiv sweat, his government claimed the allegations against the prime minister were just “one more link in the chain of denigration and destabilisation of our political system”. No surprise, the Congress Working Committee headed by Rajiv himself revived mother Indira Gandhi’s malignant mythology of a “sinister move by the forces of imperialism... through a calculated campaign of calumny”, and warned about the role of the “foreign hand” conspiring to destabilise the government and demolish the PM’s image. This time, the BJP and its ministers are attacking the Congress using the same verbiage. Saffron luminaries are painting Rahul Gandhi as a member of a foreign coalition including Pakistan, aiming to topple the Modi government.

Then, the BJP and it political brethren pressed for a JPC on Bofors. Now the Congress and its allies want the same mechanism to examine Rafale. 

But history also shows the mask of mala fide truth seeking has a contrarian side, too.

There were clear charges of commission paid to middlemen in the Bofors deal. Senior government officials, NRIs and arms dealers were named in the charge sheet. In the Rafale controversy, there are no accusations of financial irregularities or corruption so far. 

In 1989, the entire Opposition and a section of the Congress banded together against Rajiv Gandhi. In 2019, the united BJP is resolutely behind Modi while the Opposition is divided on the course of action, which weakens the Congress trigger hand.

The CAG had raised questions over the technical justification and financials of the Bofors agreement. No such official scrutiny or audit has been assigned for the Rafale deal. 

In every war since the dawn of time, clouds of dust have periodically obscured battlefields, sometimes leading the warriors to lose perspective. Lost in the fury of conflict is the tragic fact that in both, the Bofors and Rafale cases, the merit of the weapon is not in question. The acquisition of defence equipment is a minefield of careers, and the players are constantly being caught in political crossfire for four decades.

As far back as in the time of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, a scandal over the irregular purchase of jeeps for the Army had led to a purge in the bureaucracy and the Cabinet. Subsequently, many major defence deals involving submarines from France, MIGs from Russia, Mirage aircraft from France and sundry other equipment have grabbed the headlines and dictated the agenda in and outside Parliament. According to defence experts, it is rival arms lobbies that are the hothouse of scandals: the agents and their collaborators in politics, the armed forces and the bureaucracy provide ammunition against their competitors to gain the upper hand in contracts.

It is only in India that each and every defence procurement deal seems to reach the media’s eyes and ears even before it is finalised by the authorities. As major defence purchases come under public glare, the Indian defence forces keep falling to friendly fire, their morale affected and their fighting capabilities crippled. According to a deposition made by the forces, over two-thirds of Army equipment is obsolete.

The Indian Air Force is operating with less than half the number of fighter jets needed for a “two-front war” against Pakistan and China. By buying just 36 Rafale planes out of the 126 originally demanded by the IAF, India’s strike power has been seriously diluted. Moreover, the sustained and dirty competitive intervention by the invisible hands of defence agents is hobbling the expansion and manufacturing capacity of indigenous defence producers like HAL. Unless the ominous influence of the global network of defence lobbyists is eradicated, India will remain at the mercy of foreign suppliers. In the current match over Rafale, the winner, as usual, will be politics, while yet another wound is inflicted on our paralysed defence system that continues to fester and bleed.