The Supreme Court today (Friday, Dec 14) threw out all petitions seeking a probe into alleged irregularities in the Rafale aircraft deal between the Indian government and France’s Dassault Aviation.
The deal relates to the purchase of 36 fighter aircraft for an estimated Rs 580 billion.
“There is no occasion to doubt the decision-making process in Rafale deal,” the Court said. Further, the court said the country needs fighter aircraft and that dealing with the pricing details of Rafale fighter jets was not its job.
The court said there won’t be any probe into the pricing or the decision-making process.
Noting that there was a need for induction of fourth- and fifth-generation fighter aircraft like Rafale in the Indian Air Force fleet, the court questioned why nobody protested the procurement of the jets when the deal was finalised in September 2016.
Practically giving a clean chit to the Narendra Modi government in the Rafale deal, the court said: “We find no reasons to interfere in procurement process for 36 Rafale fighter jets from France.”
The court also said that it could not “compel the government to procure 126 or 36 fighter jets” and that it totally depended on the government’s decision.
The Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and comprising Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and KM Joseph said, “Our country can’t afford to be unprepared in matters of fighter aircrafts… We can’t go into the into wisdom of purchasing 36 aircrafts in place of over 126 aircrafts under the last deal.”
“We find no reason to intervene in the defence deal”, the CJI said while dismissing the petitions.
On the issue of the offset partner, the Supreme Court said there was no substantial evidence of commercial favouritism done to any private entity.
The apex court bench said, “We do not find any substantial material on record to show that this is a case of commercial favouritism to any party by the Indian Govt as the option to choose the IOP (Indian Offset Partner) does not vest with the Indian Government.”
The court, in its 29-page judgment, said: “Perception of individuals cannot be the basis of a fishing and roving enquiry by this Court, especially in such matters.”
The unanimous verdict said the court had also “closely” examined the price details including that of basic aircraft along with escalation costs. It said the government had claimed there was a commercial advantage in the deal for 36 jets and some better terms in deal qua weapons package and maintenance.
The bench added: “It is certainly not the job of this court to carry out a comparison of the pricing details in matters like the present”. The court said it was not saying anything more on the question of pricing as the details had to be kept confidential.
The bench also said, “It will not be correct for the court to sit as an appellate authority to scrutinise each aspect of the process of acquisition.”
On offsets, the court said it was “neither appropriate nor within the experience” of the court “to step into an arena of what is technically feasible”.
At the last hearing, the SC had even summoned senior Indian Air Force officials for the hearing that went on for nearly six hours. The government had submitted details of how it decided to buy 36 fighter jets from French defence manufacturer Dassault at Rs. 59,000 crore, to the top court and petitioners who have asked for an investigation into the deal. The pricing details, which the centre said were classified, were also submitted in a sealed cover to the court.
During the hearing, the government through its top law officer Attorney General KK Venugopal even questioned the court’s competence to judicially review the aircraft deal and said it was for experts to deal with it.
After the bench asked for assistance, senior IAF officials were brought in to answer questions. They told the court that Sukhoi 30s were the latest to be inducted which is a third generation aircraft and added that they do not have fourth or fifth generation aircraft in its fleet. The top court asked if there has been no induction of aircraft since 1985, the officers said “no” At that point, the AG told the court that if “Rafale had been during the Kargil war, we could have avoided huge casualties as the fighter jet is capable of hitting targets from 60 km.
The opposition Congress has been accusing massive irregularities in the deal, alleging that the government was procuring each aircraft at a cost of over Rs 1,670 crore as against Rs 526 crore finalised by the UPA government.
The main contention of the petitioners was that Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the deal in April 2015, without following the Defence Procurement Procedure. It was argued that the negotiations for the deal started after the PM announced the deal and approval of the Cabinet Committee was obtained almost a year after the announcement. The prices of aircraft were highly inflated in the new deal, and offset guidelines were manipulated to accommodate Anil Ambani firm Reliance Defence, which had no experience in the sector.
Four petitions challenging the deal were filed in the apex court – two by lawyers M L Sharma and Vineet Dhanda, one by Aam Aadmi Party leader Sanjay Singh and the fourth by former union ministers Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and advocate Prashant Bhushan.
The court had reserved its verdict in the matter on November 14 after hearing extensive arguments.
Reliance Group Chairman Anil Ambani on Friday welcomed the Supreme Court order on the multi-billion dollar Rafale jet deal, saying it established the falsity of politically motivated allegations against his firm.
“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,” Ambani said in a statement.
An elated BJP launched an attack on the Congress, especially Rahul Gandhi, for making “false allegations” against PM Narendra Modi.
BJP President Amit Shah tweeted: “Truth always triumphs! Court’s judgment on the Rafale deal exposes the campaign of misinformation spearheaded by Congress President for political gains. The court didn’t find anything wrong with the process nor did it find any commercial favouritism in the deal.”
He also questioned the “motive” behind the allegations: “… SC held that govt had no role in selecting offset partners & found no merit in the demand for a probe based on mere perception of individuals. It therefore raises obvious questions on the motive of those working to discredit the deal, which is important for India.”