Interview: Pawan Khera

'Why is the government running away from inquiry?': Pawan Khera on the recent Rafale deal disclosures

Print edition : December 03, 2021

Pawan Khera. Photo: SHAILENDRA BHOJAK/PTI

Interview with Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera.

THE latest disclosures by the French online investigative journal Mediapart about proof of a cover-up of a Rafale kickback payment to defence middleman Sushen Gupta has created a political storm of sorts. According to Congress spokesman Pawan Khera, the documents reveal that the Indian intelligence agencies the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (E.D.) were in possession of documents that proved Sushen Gupta’s nexus with the “political high command” in the BJP government, meaning the Prime Minister, and Dassault Aviation, the manufacturer of Rafale fighter jets.

Excerpts from the interview he gave Frontline:

In the Mediapart disclosures, there is a hint of direct intervention by the Prime Minister in closing the deal at a much higher price than that negotiated by the Indian Negotiating Team. This also vindicates the Congress’ stand on corruption in the Rafale deal. How is the party planning to take this to the people, especially when elections to four State Assemblies are round the corner?

These are important disclosures and the Congress is planning to educate the people about the new details now. Our spokespersons and other leaders are going to all parts of the country and will talk about the details through press conferences and other public interactions. Then the Congress Parliamentary Board will deliberate on the issue to decide how it can be raised during the forthcoming winter session of Parliament. We will take it to all corners of the country and explain how massive corruption has taken place in the deal and how this government has done its best to cover up the scam. We are sure these facts will educate people about what really happened. Never in the history of India has a Prime Minister personally intervened, undermining the stand taken by the Indian Negotiating Team. There is a note on the file, which is in public domain now, where the Defence Ministry has requested the Defence Minister to request the Prime Minister’s Office [PMO] not to intervene. This is bizarre. It is unprecedented that without a tender you go ahead and buy something worth Rs.526 crore and spend Rs.1,670 crore, you sacrifice the transfer of technology clause, you remove the anti-corruption clause. Why is the government not acting, why is it running away from inquiry?

Also read: Rafale deal: Devil in the details

But is it not a fact that kickbacks started being paid between 2007 and 2012 when the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) was in power, and the BJP has been able to only highlight this aspect, obfuscating all other details? Is that making the Congress somewhat defensive about the whole issue? Is that the reason why Congress leaders are not able to raise the issue so forcefully?

I don’t think so. We have to understand that even if there was payment of kickbacks during 2007-12 when we were in power, there was no deal then, so where is the question of quid pro quo. If you go back, there was payment of kickbacks to the same middleman, Sushen Gupta, by Dassault during 2000-04, so does it mean that the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government was also corrupt? There has to be a deal, there has to be a money trail, there has to be an agreement to establish quid pro quo.

Mere payment of commission by a company to a middleman does not make it corruption if no deal has been signed. In this case, there are documents in the public domain to directly link the middleman with the “political high command”, then the intervention by the PMO sidelining the negotiating team, and then the signing of the deal, by getting the no corruption, no commission, no middleman clause removed. All this information has been with the CBI since 2018 and with the E.D. since 2019. So why has the government chosen to sit over it and not conduct an inquiry?

The Congress made the Rafale scam its main battle cry during the 2019 Lok Sabha election, with its ‘chowkidar chor hai’ slogan. It backfired. Do you think this sort of upfront attack on the Prime Minister proved counterproductive?

If you mean the 2019 election results, the 2019 election, unfortunately, got completely incumbent upon Pulwama. A lot of other issues, whether it was Rafale, price rise, unemployment, everything got buried in Pulwama. Let’s not use election results as the yardstick to measure whether our message has been transmitted to the people or not. When Pulwama happened, all other issues got sidelined.

Also read: L’affaire Rafale

But it is also not a fact that the Congress has not been able to make Rafale corruption a part of the public discourse, like we saw with the Bofors scandal. Why do you think this is so?

If you ask me, 2019 election was all about Pulwama, but that does not mean our message did not reach the people. We are taking it up with all seriousness. Now with new details out in the public domain, this has become even more serious and I hope people understand what we meant by chowkidar chor hai.

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