by Manish Kumar Jha

The Indian government intends to replace its vintage MiG series fighter jets with the more modern Rafale fighter planes. An agreement has at last been worked out at the end of negotiations that lasted a decade with the French aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation. India will purchase 36 Rafale aircraft. Even before the first fighter jet could land on Indian soil though, the contract has already acquired the notoriety of a “dirty defence deal”.

A controversy is raging both in India and France over Dassault Aviation selecting Reliance Defence Limited (RDL) for Rafale’s Rs 30,000 crore offset obligations. Reliance Defence has no prior experience in manufacturing components for aviation, in contradiction of the “most relevant” clause in the offset discharge mechanism.

Speaking at the BW Defence conference on 27 July, Air Force Deputy Chief, Air Marshal Rag­hunath Nambiar, had said capability and technology had been the sole parameters for the Rafale deal. Yet Dassault Aviation has chosen a partner who is a novice in aviation technology.

The Indian government has denied having any say in the selection of an offset partner for the Rafale deal. France’s former President, Francois Holland (during whose tenure the nuances of the deal were worked out in 2015) has however, gone on record to say that the Indian government had recommended RDL as an offset partner for Das­sault Aviation.

A previous MMRC agreement had been finalised late in 2012 between Dassault and the Indian government of the day, after protracted talks. It was agreed then what Dassault would sell its aircraft at a base price of $10.2 billion and that 18 of the 126 planes would be imported in a fly-away condition. The remaining 118 aircraft would be manufactured by HAL, to which the French company would transfer technology. Das­sault was also obligated to invest half the transaction amount in India. The reworked agreement with Dassault does not provide for transfer of technology to India. 

Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had a chat recently with a select group of journalists – none of whom specialise in defence. Some desperate measures seem to be afoot for damage control.