The Supreme Court dismissed all petitions calling for an investigation into the purchase of Rafale warplanes by the government and said that processes were broadly followed by the government while signing a multi-billion dollar deal with France’ France’s Dassault Aviation.
The verdict provides a huge relief for the Narendra Modi government, which was facing uneasy questions on the deal, and delivers a big blow to the plans of the opposition parties to make the deal an issue in the run-up to the 2019 general elections.
The court said on Friday that while there could be minor deviations, a detailed scrutiny into the deal was not required and added that there was no evidence to suggest that the government favoured certain private parties. "We don't find any material to show it is commercial favouritism," Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi said.
The court said it has examined the decision-making process, pricing and the induction of billionaire Anil Ambani-led Reliance Defence as the offset partner of Dassault.
The deal triggered a political storm in India after Former French president Francois Hollande, who approved the deal when he was in office, said the Indian government influenced the choice of a local partner in the deal.
The government denied the allegations, but opposition parties launched a storm of protests over the 2016 purchase of 36 Rafale planes estimated to be worth $8.7 billion, saying the government overpaid for the planes and the deal had not been transparent.
The court, while delivering the verdict, said, "In matters of defence procurement, no uniform standard of judicial review has to be on case to case basis."
The top court said the government “cannot afford to be unprepared, while our adversaries are acquiring 4th and 5th generation fighters”. It added that it was a “hard fact that the negotiations had ended for the purchase of 126 aircraft.”
The government, as mentioned by SC, claimed commercial advantage in deal for 36 aircraft. The court added that it was “not the job of the court to scrutinise such details”.
On the matter of offset partner, it said merely press interview cannot form basis of judicial scrutiny and added that the government had no role to play in choice of IOP.
Reacting to SC's judgement, Anil Ambani, chairman, Reliance Group, said, "I welcome the judgment of the Hon'ble Supreme Court today summarily dismissing all PILs filed on the Rafale contracts, and conclusively establishing the complete falsity of the wild, baseless and politically motivated allegations levelled against Reliance Group and me personally. We remain committed to India's national security and to making our humble contribution towards the Make in India and Skill India policies of the government in the critical area of defence including our offset partnership agreement with our valued partner, Dassault Aviation of France."
In October, the apex court had asked the centre to place before it in a sealed cover the details of the decision-making process and the pricing in the Rafale fighter jet deal with France.
A bench comprised of chief justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justices SK Kaul and KM Joseph heard various petitions seeking directions, including asking the centre to reveal details of the deal and the comparative prices during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and National Democratic Alliance (NDA) rule.
Four Public Interest Litigations (PIL) were filed in the court. Out of the four PILs, two were filed by lawyers M L Sharma and Vineet Dhanda, one by senior lawyer Prashant Bhushan, former union ministers Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha and another by AAP leader Sanjay Singh.
The Rafale deal is a defence agreement signed between the government of India and France for Rafale fighter, a twin-engine Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) manufactured by French aerospace company Dassault Aviation.
Indian Air Force had advanced a proposal for 126 fighter aircraft in August 2007, under the UPA government and had floated a tender. Of these, 18 were to be delivered by Dassault Aviation in a flyaway condition and 108 were to be manufactured in India with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) being the partner. However, the deal did not materialise under the UPA government.
After prime minister Narendra Modi came to power, an inter-government agreement (IGA) was signed by the defence ministers of both countries on Sept 23, 2016 for the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter aircraft in a flyaway condition and ever since the deal has been surrounded by controversies as Dassault chose Reliance group firm of Anil Ambani as an offset partner.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi has been accusing Modi of forcing the French company to select Ambani's firm as the partner to help it "pocket" Rs 30,000 crore.
Congress has also alleged the government was procuring each aircraft at a cost of over Rs 1,670 crore as against Rs 526 crore finalised by UPA government.
However, the government has been maintaining it did not have any role in the selection of the offset partner.
(With inputs from agencies)