Corruption allegations surrounding the Indian government's aviation deal with France have the potential to lead to a defeat for Modi's government in the upcoming election.

India’s swirling Rafale arms deal controversy is refusing to die down with new revelations threatening to engulf India’s federal government. The scandal could be ominous for the Narendra Modi dispensation, reminiscent of the Bofors arms deal that led to the defeat of the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1989.

The more the Bharatiya Janata Party-led federal government attempts to defend the deal as straightforward, the more information surfaces raising questions over the integrity of the agreement.

The deal between India and France, worth nearly $9 billion, was for the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter aircraft manufactured by Dassault Aviation. Signed in September 2016,  the agreement kicked up a controversy a couple of months later over Dassault  Aviation signing up with India’s Anil Ambani-led Reliance Defence to manufacture aircraft components despite the Indian company having no previous experience in the field.

The agreement threw up allegations of corruption, cronyism and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s questionable proximity to a small section of India’s top industrialists. Since then, the government has attempted various ways to douse the controversy, coloured it as opposition propaganda to defame the government and even managed to win a judgment from the country’s Supreme Court which said there was no need to investigate the deal.

Yet, a slew of new information has ensured that the controversy remains in the media spotlight. Government spokespersons like defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman have valiantly attempted to puncture media reports as a “dead horse” that the opposition was trying to flog.

The government’s response shows growing desperation to clear the air on the deal especially with crucial parliamentary elections expected in May this year. The elections will determine the fate of Narendra Modi and the BJP. With defeats in assembly elections in three major states – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh – in December last year, the BJP has already lost its sheen of invincibility. 

The Rafale deal is similar to the Bofors weapons scandal in 1989 which rocked the then federal Congress-ruled government headed by prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. That deal, worth $ 1.4 billion in 1986, involved the purchase of the 155 mm Howitzer guns from the Swedish arms maker AB Bofors.  The allegation that kickbacks from the deal benefited ruling politicians including the prime minister himself eventually led to the party’s defeat in the 1989 parliamentary elections. 

Investigations uncovered the names of some middle-men with one of them supposedly close to the Rajiv Gandhi family, but a direct link to the prime minister himself has never been conclusively established.  But the scandal tainted the then government and the ruling family irrevocably.  

The BJP, employing extensive media revelations at that time, played a crucial role in ensuring that the Bofors issue remained in the spotlight and influenced voter choice in the 1989 elections.

Ironically, today, in the Rafale deal the tables have turned. The BJP is on the defensive, and the Congress is on the offensive, sparing no opportunity to criticise and attack the government inside India’s parliament and in public rallies across the country. And, the chief campaigner for the Congress is its young president Rahul Gandhi, the son of Rajiv Gandhi.

The media, particularly leading English dailies The Hindu and Indian Express played an essential role in exposing the Bofors deal. This time around on Rafale  The Hindu has come up with sensational revelations that appear to be taking the government down a slippery slope. 

The reports, backed by government correspondence on the subject, claim that the office of Prime Minister Modi carried on a parallel negotiation that the Indian defence ministry did not know of. The defence secretary in a note cautions the prime minister’s office to discontinue negotiations as that would work against Indian interests, the report reveals.

The report accuses the parallel negotiation as having been responsible for India not insisting on a sovereign guarantee (or even an escrow account) that would have helped India proceed legally if Dassault Aviation defaulted on its deliveries, a standard clause in all such agreements. Instead, France merely offered a “letter of comfort” ( an assurance legally unenforceable) which India accepted.

According to the investigative story, the Indian government dropped anti-corruption penalty clauses in its agreement with the French, thereby providing further grist to the suspicion that all was not above board in the deal.

The parallels with the Bofors controversy, however, stop where social media is concerned. The 1989 scandal happened at a time when computers were in their infancy, and the Internet was mostly unknown. Today,  supporters of  Prime Minister Modi and the BJP have flooded the Internet and social media with attacks on The Hindu newspaper and N Ram,  the journalist behind the story, while attempting to find loopholes in the argument against the Rafale deal.

Those backing the media investigation into Rafale and of the opinion that the weapons agreement is dubious and tainted are hitting back asking for a high-powered parliamentary inquiry. The government is in no mood to oblige.

But the more important question is whether history will repeat itself with Rafale extracting its pound of flesh at the hustings.

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