The on-going Rafale deal controversy was revived afresh, this time from France where Le Monde newspaper reported that Anil Ambani’s French-registered telecom company was given tax waivers worth 143.7 million euros by local authorities, shortly after the announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to buy 36 Rafale jets in fly away condition.
According to the newspaper, Ambani’s telecom company “Reliance Atlantic Flag France” was investigated by French tax authorities and found liable to pay 60 million euros between 2007 and 2010.
In an attempt to reach a settlement, Reliance had offered to pay 7.6 million euros, which was rejected by the authorities and upon further investigation for the period 2010 to 2012 an additional tax of 91 million euros was levied.
During a visit to Paris in April 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise announcement for direct purchase of 36 Rafale jets in fly away condition in April 2014 citing “critical operational necessity” of IAF.
Soon after the announcement, Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence had emerged as the lead offset partner for the deal. The total offsets for the deal worth 7.87 bn euro to be discharged in India were valued at Rs 30,000 crore.
In late April 2015, a few days after Modi’s announcement, Anil Ambani firm Reliance Aerostructures Limited formed a joint venture with Dassault. The production unit of the joint venture, called Dassault Reliance Aviation Limited was inaugurated in Nagpur in 2016 in the presence of top Indian and French ministers, reported The Indian Express (IE).
By this time the tax liability on Reliance had mounted to at least 151 million euros according to Le Monde. However, six months after the announcement, French tax authorities made a settlement for 7.3 million euros instead of 151 million euros, less than even 7.6 million euros that Relaince had initially offered.
Thus, between February and October 2015 as India and France began negotiations on the deal for the 36 jets, Ambani got a tax waiver of 143.7 million euros from the French.
The MoU for the deal was signed between the Indian and French defence ministers in Delhi on January 25, 2016 and on September 23, 2016, India and France signed a 7.87 billion euro Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) which has a 50% offset clause to be executed by the French partners.
Dassault Aviation, the manufacturer of Rafale jets, chose Anil Ambani’s Reliance as an offset partner to execute its share of offset obligations. There have been questions on this selection as Reliance has no experience in the defence sector.
In a series of revelations, The Hindu detailed how the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) ran parallel negotiations in the deal giving French companies a range of concessions from the defence procurement procedure in the Rafale deal.
Last year, Francois Hollande who was the French President when the announcement on Rafale was made in 2015, told a French news outlet, Mediapart.fr that his government didn’t have “a choice” in the selection of Reliance Defence as the offset partner in the Rafale deal.
The Indian Express has also reported that Anil Ambani had met the advisors to the then French Defence Minister in his office two weeks before the Rafale deal was announced by PM Modi. Dassault Aviation, the French company manufacturing Rafale jets, has repeatedly claimed Reliance Defence was chosen as an offset partner on its own merits.
In its report about tax relief to Reliance, Le Monde reported that in early 2015, the French auditor firm AEG France had refused to certify Reliance Flag Atlantic France’s accounts as it was not sure if they were “straightforward and accurate,” according to French rules.
The tax administration had argued that Ambani’s company was “improperly documenting its transactions with other companies within the Reliance Group – a commonly used technique to move transfers to tax havens so that it can avoid a tax burden”. It also said that the parent company of the French company of Anil Ambani, Reliance Globalcom Limited, was domiciled in Bermuda, a territory that has been registered in March on a blacklist of tax havens of the European Union.
Response of Reliance Communication
Responding to the Le Monde story, Reliance Communications in a statement said the case pertains to 2008 and denied any “favouritism or gain” from settlement, according to media reports.
The statement said that it “denies any favouritism or gain from settlement. Reliance Flag settled disputes as per legal framework in France available to all companies operating in France”.
A Reliance Communications Limited spokesperson said Reliance FLAG Atlantic France SAS is a subsidiary of Reliance Communications, India and that FLAG France owns a terrestrial cable network and other telecom infrastructure in France, reported IE.
“During the period under consideration by the French Tax Authorities—2008-2012—i.e. nearly 10 years ago, Flag France had an operating loss of Rs 20 crore (i.e. Euro 2.7 million). French tax authorities had raised a tax demand of over Rs 1,100 crore for the same period. As per the French tax settlement process as per law, a mutual settlement agreement was signed to pay ₹56 crore as a final settlement,” IE reported the spokesperson as having said.
Congress accuses Modi of acting as Anil Ambani’s midddleman
The Congress got fresh fodder to attack the Prime Minister over the Rafale issue after French newspaper Le Monde report.
“PM Modi is acting as middle man for Anil Ambani. How many other companies in France have got a tax benefit? Is this not a quid pro quo for the purchase of aircraft? It is clear ek hi chowkidar chor hai (Only one watchman is the thief),” Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said.
Using the BJP’s campaign slogan to take a jibe at the party, Surjewala also said corruption in the multi-crore deal was made possible due to Modi’s patronage. “Modi hai to mumkin hai,” he said.
Citing the Le Monde report, Surjewala said layers of corruption and money trail have been unveiled in Rafale saga and cited a timeline of events to buttress his claim.
“On March 23, 2015, Anil Ambani met French defence officials. Till then the contract to build 128 Rafale was with HAL. On April 10, 2015, PM Modi discards the old Rafale deal and announces a new deal worth €7.8billion,” Surjewala said.
The Congress leader said after PM Modi announced the new Rafale deal, France cancelled the tax recovery worth 143.7 million euros of a company belonging to Anil Ambani.
“Between 2007-2010, France demands tax from Reliance Flag Atlantic France worth 60mn euros. Later, between 2010-12, 51mn euros additional tax was levied on the company. On September 21, 2018, Francois Hollande states that he was given no choice by PM Modi but to choose Anil Ambani’s company (as offset partner),” Surjewala said.
Surjewala further claimed that in 2017-18, Dassault Aviation deposited Rs 284 crore in the bank account of an inactive company Reliance Airport Developer’s Ltd. “This took place when the government of India was making advance payments to Dassault Aviation,” he said.