Rafale deal: A turbulent flight for the BJP

There are two wings on which scandals of the Rafale and Bofors variety take flight. One is plain fact and the other is perception. The government has its back to the wall on both counts. There is now little doubt that it is fast losing or has already lost the political battle on the Rafale deal. This doesn’t mean that the current dispensation will be thrown out of office or anything nearly as dramatic, but as credibility nosedives functioning will be crippled.

There are two wings on which scandals of the Rafale and Bofors variety take flight. One is plain fact and the other is perception. The government has its back to the wall on both counts. There is now little doubt that it is fast losing or has already lost the political battle on the Rafale deal. This doesn’t mean that the current dispensation will be thrown out of office or anything nearly as dramatic, but as credibility nosedives functioning will be crippled. Expect a lot of political capital to be spent on defending the deal, leaving that much less time and energy for anything else. And since this appears to be a party led and controlled and directed by a limited number of two (never mind the jokes of a party of one-and-three-fourths), the crippling effect will likely travel down the line and paralyse decision making. Right now, the BJP has decided that the Rafale deal is a battle of perceptions and it will fight it through a series of news conferences and public engagements across the country. There remain many unanswered questions on the deal. When a privileged few in big business make major deals in foreign lands and the government talks of secrecy and the subject is the defense of the nation, then all the ingredients are in place for a major scandal. How did a party known for its sharp management of public perception lose the battle of perceptions closer to the election? How did it slip on a surface known to be as slippery as a defence deal? How did a leadership known for its faith in the capacities of Twitter decide to fight back with news conferences?

The official explanations on the price, the number of aircraft and India-specific add-ons were already looking shaky when came the sledgehammer from the former President of France Francois Hollande that the French side was given the name of the Anil Ambani-led Reliance group as a partner in the deal.

The official explanations on the price, the number of aircraft and India-specific add-ons were already looking shaky when came the sledgehammer from the former President of France Francois Hollande that the French side was given the name of the Anil Ambani-led Reliance group as a partner in the deal. In Hollande's words, as reported, “We did not have a say in this...the Indian government proposed this service group and Dassault negotiated with Ambani group. We did not have a choice, we took the partner who was given to us." The official position is that it was the French manufacturer Dassault Aviation that decided to enter into a partnership with India’s Reliance Group, a novice in the field when compared to the choice of partnering with the public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, which has a wealth of history in aircraft manufacturing. “This (Reliance) is Dassault Aviation’s choice,” according to Dassault CEO Eric Trappier, a partnership that created the Dassault Reliance Aerospace Ltd (DRAL) joint venture in February 2017. This is precisely the argument of the Indian government: “The Government has…no role in the selection of Reliance Defence as the…partner.”  Dassault Aviation and Reliance have built a plant in Nagpur to manufacture parts for Falcon and Rafale aircraft. The official statement of Dassault thought it fit to explain why Nagpur was the chosen destination! It said, “(The) Nagpur site was chosen because of the availability of land with direct access to an airport runway, an essential condition of aeronautic activities.” But Hollande has put the entire government into a spin with his clear statement that India got Reliance into the contract.

The official statement of Dassault thought it fit to explain why Nagpur was the chosen destination! It said, “(The) Nagpur site was chosen because of the availability of land with direct access to an airport runway, an essential condition of aeronautic activities.” But Hollande has put the entire government into a spin with his clear statement that India got Reliance into the contract.

There are a host of numbers, explanations and circumstances being thrown around in the heat of the political battle between the BJP and the Opposition, and more are to be expected. A lot of it will be obfuscated in the merry-go-round of ugly name-calling that has become the order of the day. Beyond the din, what stands out is that there is something very wrong about the way the deal closed.  Opening up will help clear the air but what also matters is who is more believable, credible and reasonable. Data has credibility only when it is offered by a side that is seen as credible.  A monolithic government, with a brute majority, arrogant to boot, four years into office and a host of mis-steps, all of them unacknowledged, and cocksure of itself, is just the right candidate for credibility and goodwill to vanish into thin air, leaving it unable to fight the cloud of suspicion in dealings that have all the hallmarks of a scandal.

This credibility has been chipped away bit by bit, and by a host of factors. First, there are the social strains, the attempt to divide and the almost naked attempt to divert attention that has become more pronounced as pressure mounts on the government. Politically, the government has few friends; it has perfected the art of annoying everyone. Even its long-term ally, the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, has a lot to say against the top BJP brass. Diplomatically, the US has put pressure on India. Remarks like “termites” against alleged “infiltrators” will not help relations with neighbours, particularly Bangladesh when the NRC controversy is being raked up in a very ugly fashion. On the economic side, the claimed benefits of demonetisation versus what happened with all the money back in the banks made the biggest and boldest initiative of the government stand out as its most bizarre.

Data has credibility only when it is offered by a side that is seen as credible.  A monolithic government, with a brute majority, arrogant to boot, four years into office and a host of mis-steps, all of them unacknowledged, and cocksure of itself, is just the right candidate for credibility and goodwill to vanish into thin air, leaving it unable to fight the cloud of suspicion in dealings that have all the hallmarks of a scandal.

The wild protests against rising prices, particularly petrol prices, under Dr. Manmohan Singh against the silence of the very protestors when prices are up much more, told us that the issue was more a trick to win points. The precipitous fall in the price of the rupee when this was the very issue to beat the previous government with words like the “rupee is in the ICU” confirms that the past protest was as purely political noise. In each of these issues, truth was a causality. The fact remains that the government can do little in the short term to contain the fall in the rupee and it has even lesser leverage when it comes to the prices of petrol.   That was then as it is now. The UPA government paid a political price then and the BJP suffers similarly in perception now, except that the Congress has not been able to draw as much mileage on the issues as the BJP did then. The party is still not as well organised and has a long way to go before it can be ready to challenge the BJP in a meaningful way. But the credibility of the latter is low, perhaps at its lowest.

The UPA government paid a political price then and the BJP suffers similarly in perception now, except that the Congress has not been able to draw as much mileage on the issues as the BJP did then. The party is still not as well organised and has a long way to go before it can be ready to challenge the BJP in a meaningful way. But the credibility of the latter is low, perhaps at its lowest.

In the Rafale deal, the Congress has smelt blood. The issue has energised the party. This is not unlike the manner in which the opposition was energised at the time of the Bofors scandal in the 1980s that has made the Congress pay a price then and also over the years. That, too, was a case of perception built against a leader who had lost credibility, caused by the arrogance of a brute majority that allowed Rajiv Gandhi the illusion of total control till one of his team, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, resigned and went on to become the next Prime Minister. If recent history is any guide, defence deals gone sour have the nasty habit of staying with us and throwing up all kinds of surprises. It'll be a bumpy ride into 2019.