NEW DELHI: The Modi government would have heaved a sigh of relief that the audit of the Rafale acquisition did not endorse Congress’s charge that the deal violated norms and escalated costs at the expense of home grown defence public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited.

The allegations were damaging as they questioned the commitment of the India-France statement which said the Rafale deal for 36 jets in flyaway condition would be concluded on terms better than those being negotiated in a separate process that had been under way — the discussions had stalled under UPA.

The Comptroller and Auditor General’s report on the Rafale deal does not find merit in these arguments. While the report will not mark the end of the political confrontation with Congress chief Rahul Gandhi repeating allegations that industrialist Anil Ambani has been favoured in the offsets contract, there remains no strong evidence against the NDA government.

While Congress hopes to do a Bofors on BJP, there is a no adverse CAG report as was the case with the 2G and Coalgate scams that proved damaging for UPA-II and left the Manmohan Singh government in a damage control mode. The questions that the CAG has raised are about whether the Modi government could have swung a better deal by seeking stronger guarantees and pressing for more financial concessions.

But the queries do not lead the CAG to conclude that the cost of the deal had escalated. Far from the claim that there was a three-fold increase in the cost of the fighter, there is a small saving over the 2007 cost. The ability to hold the price line and even improve it, feel government managers, is a creditable result. They point out that the CAG has noted that the cost analysis was necessitated only due to the political directive that the price had to be bettered.

The savings, according to the CAG, are not to the order of 9% on the aircraft as had been claimed by the government. This is a setback but the auditor notes that the calculation was not without any basis. It was based on a sub-committee that used actual values available till June, 2011 and used provisional ones till October, 2011. It then used an annualised escalation formula. But by 2015 actual escalation factors were available and the CAG concluded that the price of the aircraft in 2007 and 2016 was at par.

For Congress, having claimed that the deal was rotten through and through, there was not much option but to reject the CAG report altogether. A more calibrated attack would have allowed Congress to pick out criticism of the government missing out opportunities for a higher price advantage to its advantage.