by Sreemoy Talukdar

The idiom ‘lost in translation’ refers to the true meaning, subtlety or nuance of words that goes missing or is misinterpreted when translated from one language to another. Director Sofia Coppola used it as the title for her romantic comedy in 2003, starring Scarlett Johansson and Bill Murray. Movies are wonderful illusions weaved out of facts, fiction and craft.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi is busy directing his own movie to entertain voters in the upcoming elections. And between the French written word and its English translation, he has chanced upon enough illusion in the script to weave a gripping narrative.

“Narendra Modi is corrupt,” thundered the Congress president on Thursday, repeating a charge that he has levelled often in the past. “He must resign,” said Gandhi in a flourish of righteous indignation. The dynast was on a roll. He called the prime minister a ‘Chowkidar’ (watchman) of industrialist Anil Ambani and told reporters in a news conference that in order to “save Ambani’s debt-ridden business”, Modi has “taken Rs 30,000 crore from IAF and put it in Ambani’s pocket.”

The Congress president also questioned the prime minister’s silence on the issue, suggested that the Union defence minister has “rushed to France” to engineer a “cover-up”, called for an “investigation” into the issue, and for good measure, added that even an “ex-President of France — no less has said India’s prime minister is corrupt”.

It is not clear which former French president had called prime minister Modi “corrupt”. Rahul didn’t bother to furnish any data. He also might not be aware that Nirmala Sitharaman did not actually “rush” to France. Her visit, in fact, was delayed. The Union defence minister was slated to meet her French counterpart Florence Parly on 17 September but had to defer the trip reportedly due to “scheduling issues”.

It is a daft thing to drag heads of other states into Indian domestic politics, dafter still to come unprepared to news conferences. However, coming from Rahul, it is not really surprising. The Gandhi dynast doesn’t believe in responsible politics and has little regard for facts or data. He wants to do a VP Singh on Modi but his entire Rafale script rests on a game of smoke and mirrors where illusions and perception shape the narrative.

Rahul’s latest salvo against the prime minister is based on a report published in French media which purportedly “proves” that Dassault Aviation, the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) of Rafale fighter jets, was “under pressure” to take Anil Ambani’s Reliance on board as its offset partner. If true, this seemingly corroborates former French president Francois Hollande’s original statement (from which he later backtracked) that Indian government “proposed” Reliance’s name.

The report, published in French portal Mediapart, refers to a document where Dassault deputy CEO Loïk Segalen is quoted as informing his staff members in May 2017 that Dassault’s joint venture with Ambani’s Reliance group (called Dassault Reliance Aerospace Ltd, or DRAL) for discharging offsets in the Rafale deal was a “precondition". It was apparently “imperative and obligatory” for the jet manufacturing firm to win the 36-aircraft deal. Rahul wasted no time in referring to the report and concluded that this “is a clear-cut case of corruption.”

Dassault is obligated under French law to explain to its workers’ union why it was shifting its production of Falcon business jets to Nagpur in India under joint venture DRAL instead of creating jobs for French labourers. The firm identified Reliance as “counterpartie” or “counterpart” in the French document, as Sujan Dutta points out in his piece.

However, Dassault’s CEO Eric Trappier has clarified in an interview with news agency AFP that the document refers to India’s “offset clause” and shifting of a part of the work to India as “mandatory” part of the 36 aircraft deal, and nowhere, he claims, has Loïk Segalen said that the company was obligated to take Reliance on board. The company owed an explanation to its workers why the deal won’t yield as many jobs as labour unions would have hoped, and cited the offset contract under India’s Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) as the reason.

On the controversy over the French word contrepartie which Rahul took as concrete proof of Modi’s corruption, Trappier said: “what is called “offset” in English is usually translated into French as “compensation” or “contrepartie”. The reference is the contract we signed and which is called “Offset contract”. With regard to the staff and trades unions organisations, Dassault Aviation uses the term “obligation contractuelle d’offset” or “obligation contractuelle de compensation ”.

The Dassault Aviation CEO reiterated that the company was under no pressure from anyone to choose Reliance as a joint venture partner. He also clarified that DRAL has only 10 percent offset in Rafale and Reliance is one among 100 firms with whom Dassault is negotiating to discharge its offset obligations, including around 30 with which the company has already confirmed partnerships.

“Signing an offset contract is a requirement of Indian law (Defence Procurement Procedure). The implementation of offsets is an obligation and, under the Indian regulation, the choice of the partners belongs to us. In full compliance with this regulation, Dassault Aviation therefore decided to set up the DRAL joint venture with Reliance and build a plant in Nagpur, which should enable us to meet about 10% of these offset obligations. We are in negotiations with about a hundred Indian companies and partnerships have already been concluded with about thirty of them,” he said in the interview.

The company, in a separate release, has repeated that Dassault Aviation “has freely chosen to make a partnership with India’s Reliance Group” and “other partnerships have been signed with other companies such as BTSL, DEFSYS, Kinetic, Mahindra, Maini, SAMTEL.”

Theoretically, it is possible, as the Congress president has claimed, that Dassault is “lying” under pressure from the Indian government because it wants to safeguard the deal. That potential conflict of interest, however, won’t apply in case of independent actors such as Julien Boussiou, the South Asia correspondent of French newspaper Le Monde, whose interpretation of the purported Mediapart document (which Rahul has cited to attack Modi) matches that of Dassault CEO Trappier’s contention.

In a series of tweets since the latest controversy broke out, Boussiou has pointed out that “in may 2017, Dassault Informed French trade unions about the construction of a plant in Nagpur, and explained to them why that plant could not be built in France. (because of the offset).”

Incidentally, France president Emmanuel Macron is under tremendous pressure due to a slowdown in the economy and high unemployment rate. The French economy has recorded a 1.6 percent growth this year, the lowest in Europe. The unemployment rate stands at 9.1 percent; two of Macron’s cabinet colleagues have “abruptly” resigned and the president’s approval rate has tumbled to “29% in September from 50% at the start of the year.”

It is not inconceivable that right at this juncture, the French government will be under intense media scrutiny for lack of jobs, and susceptible to charges that it cut a bad deal that requires jobs to be transferred out of France. This ties all the loose ends lends an entirely different perspective to the controversy. We now see that the motivation behind French media activism might be related more to French domestic politics.

Also, the different interpretations of the word contrepartie (by an independent source) demolishes Congress narrative and strengthens the government’s position that it never suggested Reliance’s name to Dassault. As has been noted earlier, between the written French word and its English translation, Rahul found enough space to peddle his propaganda on the deal, but campaigns based on obfuscations and surmises eventually become unsustainable bar the rhetoric.

Not for the first time has the Congress president been found wanting in facts. His main charge against the Modi government is one of cronyism. He has attempted to prove that Modi has helped his “pal” Anil Ambani in securing a Rs 30,000 crore deal (the actual offset contract bagged by Reliance is much lower.)

While the Gandhi scion has been unable to prove his charge or make a convincing case on Rafale, reports have emerged that “projects worth Rs 100,000 crore were awarded to Anil Ambani’s Reliance Group during the last seven years of the Congress-led UPA government.” Time will tell whether Gandhi’s gamble will work. Right now, it looks unlikely.