The political context of the recent revelations on the Rafale deal has three strands that are, in parts, interlinked and also divergent. One of the most visible strands is the sustained iteration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s direct role in the questionable and shady transactions that led to the dramatic restructuring of the deal by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. The second significant strand is the eruption of several controversies that are diversionary, some of which were actively promoted by the BJP and its associates in the Sangh Parivar while others grew on their own steam. These controversies include the ones based on the Supreme Court’s judgment allowing women (of all age groups) entry into the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, and the #MeToo movement, which had its own dynamics. The third palpable component is the much-felt absence of a dynamic anti-corruption, anti-establishment campaign leader in the opposition ranks, capable of building up a mass movement on the evidently duplicitous aspects in the deal. The anti-establishment movement of 1975-77 was inspired by Jayaprakash Narayan and the anti-corruption movement of 1989 against the Bofors and HDW submarine scandals was driven by Vishwanath Pratap Singh, who was described by the slogan “Raja nahi, Fakir hain” (not a king, a saint). The net result of the interplay of these three elements is that the public-political discourse on the Rafale deal has not received the kind of traction that normally accompanies a corruption scandal of this scale.
However, the expectations among social activists and politicians such as Prashant Bhushan of Swaraj India, Vijoo Krishnan of the All India Kisan Sabha and the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and former BJP Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha, who have consistently highlighted the underhand dealings in the acquisition of Rafale aircraft, are that this political fluidity will not continue for long.
Sinha told Frontline that the abuse of power with regard to the deal was of such magnitude that it could not be kept out of public gaze and discourse for long through diversionary tactics. “The cover-up tactics are soon going to become untenable. All corruption scandals develop their own momentum and critical mass in terms of societal churning. Bofors started with a stray radio broadcast, which was vehemently denied by the then Congress government. But over the course of a few months, the revelations on the deal came out in torrents leading to a massive political movement. Rafale has similar elements and hence its trajectory, too, will be no different,” he said. Bhushan and Vijoo Krishan also have a similar assessment.
Nexus with crony capitalists
Opposition leaders such as Shakeel Ahmed of the Congress and Sudhir Panwar of the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) are of the view that the revelations on the Rafale deal have underscored Modi’s long-standing nexus with crony capitalists and his promotion of their interests. Panwar said that the unravelling of the “incorruptible” image of Modi acquired momentum from early this year when the Nirav Modi scandal surfaced. “The presence of Nirav Modi in the business delegation accompanying the Prime Minister to Davos, just a week before the scandal was reported to the Central Bureau of Investigation, and the public debate on this marked a concrete instance of this unravelling and the momentum this process was gathering. The evidence that is gradually emerging on the Rafale deal through the statements of former French President Francois Hollande and the internal documents of the French aviation firm Dassault has accentuated this process. These revelations have even given rise to interpretations in social media that Modi and BJP president Amit Shah could be the real financial beneficiaries of the Rafale deal and that Anil Ambani and his firm, hurriedly formed a few days before the finalisation of the contract, may just be a middleman with a subsidiary role. It is only a question of time before such a debate captures the attention of the masses,” Panwar said.
The campaign that the Congress, the principal opposition party, has advanced on this issue has also emphasised the “corrupt personal intervention” of Prime Minister Modi in favour of his “industrialist friend”. Congress president Rahul Gandhi led this campaign from the front. Citing Modi’s description of himself as a “ chowkidar [watchman] of the country”, Rahul Gandhi said the chowkidar had become chor [thief]. Beyond the rhetoric, there is a steady narrative that the Congress has sought to build up in its campaign on the issue. That, too, focusses on the long-standing association Modi and his regime have had with “rich and corrupt industrialist friends” and how their interests have been promoted at the cost of the poor, especially farmers and other segments of the population in rural India.
The Congress narrative highlights the Modi government’s move in 2015 to do away with two vital clauses in the Land Acquisition Act and asserts that the regime was trying to facilitate the rich and the mighty through various means right from the early stages. The provisions of the Act highlighted by the Congress are the consent clause, which stipulated that land could be acquired for a private sector project or joint public-private sector project only if 80 per cent of the landowners gave their consent, and the social impact on the lives of those replaced and the compensation to factor in the socio-cultural-economic changes. The Modi government sought to do away these two clauses on the grounds that they caused unnecessary delays in land acquisition for crucial infrastructure projects. It got the Bill passed in the Lok Sabha but failed to get it passed in the Rajya Sabha. Subsequently, an Ordinance was promulgated. The opposition parties, led by the Congress, called the move “anti-farmer” and took out a protest march from Parliament House to the Rashtrapati Bhavan in New Delhi on March 17, 2015, demanding quashing of the Ordinance. The government gave in and dropped the amendments to the Act.
The Congress leader Shakeel Ahmed told Frontline that the manoeuvres to help Modi’s “industrialist friends” had started after this failed attempt to amend the Land Acquisition Act. “Despite the setback on the land Bill, the Prime Minister announced the demonetisation drive [on November 8, 2016] as a well-calculated action to take money from the poor people in order to write off loans of his rich industrialist friends. Thousands of crores worth corporate loans given by public sector banks were written off in the name of cleansing of their books after the demonetisation exercise,” Ahmed said.
Rahul Gandhi has also spoken in a similar vein, asserting that demonetisation had directly helped the “Adanis and Ambanis, Nirav Modis and Mehul Choksis”. The Congress has gone on to present the move, led directly by the Prime Minister, to sideline everybody in the government in order to push Hindustan Aeronautics Limited [HAL] out of the Rafale deal and benefit Anil Ambani’s company as the offset partner as an obvious continuation of policy manoeuvres such as changes to the Land Acquisition Act and the demonetisation announcement.
Shakeel Ahmed said: “The United Progressive Alliance government had negotiated a deal for 126 Rafale aircraft at Rs.526 crore per aircraft. The deal included technology transfer as 100 aircraft would have been built in India with HAL as the offset partner. Modi scrapped this deal, pushed HAL out of the picture, forced Dassault to accept Anil Ambani’s two-week-old company as its India partner and jacked up the price of each aircraft to Rs.1,190 crore, without any technology transfer. When the Prime Minister visited France, one of his co-travellers in the aircraft was Anil Ambani. If what we are saying is wrong then the government should come out with the list of those who travelled with the Prime Minister in his aircraft during that visit.”
There is little doubt that these pointed questions have not evoked clear and credible responses from the government, especially from the Defence Ministry and the BJP leadership. The responses from the government and the ruling party are perceived to be consistently inadequate. More often than not, the BJP leadership, including Modi and Amit Shah, have taken recourse to harking back to the corruption scandals of the previous Congress governments without answering the charges on the Rafale deal.
Rahul Gandhi and other Congress leaders have been regularly highlighting these inadequacies of the Modi government in order to build a big campaign on the corruption theme. However, the internal assessment of a significant section of the Congress is that it has not reached a political crescendo on account of the diversionary public discourses and the absence of campaigners of the calibre of V.P. Singh.
A senior Congress strategist said the party at the moment was attempting to nibble away at the personal credibility of the Prime Minister. He said this effort had had a limited effect so far but it could certainly provide the basis for building a more decisive public response. Left parties and activists and leaders such as Bhushan and Sinha hold a similar opinion. But the fact remains that none of them is sure when their drives will generate the critical mass needed for a powerful anti-corruption movement.