Across the Aisle: The ghost takes form and shape, writes P Chidambaram

Therefore, when a French investigating journal, Mediapart, published a report last Saturday, following up on its report of April 2021 on the Rafale Aircraft deal, not a leaf stirred in the hot, dry and windless capital of India.

Sangfroid is a French word. The Oxford English Dictionary gives its meaning as ‘the ability to stay calm in difficult circumstances’.

Indians have beaten the French in sangfroid. In no other country would there be such indifference in the wake of millions migrating, on foot, without money or food or medicines or help, to their homes in villages and towns hundreds of kilometres away. In no other country would the sight of ambulances with very sick patients lined up outside hospitals be tolerated as the curse of a developing country. In no other country would the terrible grief over 4,05,967 deaths (believed to be understated by 4-5 times) due to Covid-19 be kept totally private without spilling over as public anger. In no other country would millions of children from poor families be excluded from online learning without their parents storming the citadels of power. You can add to the list, and marvel at the sangfroid of the Indian people.

Quit sans Responsibility

Finally, the Minister of Labour & Employment has resigned. The Minister of Health has resigned. The Minister of Education has resigned. And more. None of the ministers has resigned owning responsibility. No one has linked the ‘voluntary’ resignations to the oppressive burdens their administration placed on the people during 2020 and 2021.

Therefore, when a French investigating journal, Mediapart, published a report last Saturday, following up on its report of April 2021 on the Rafale Aircraft deal, not a leaf stirred in the hot, dry and windless capital of India. I doubt if anyone in the Ministry of Defence even raised his or her eyebrows. The Defence Minister, a gracious human being, did not react. The former defence minister chose to look the other way despite the fact that the story contradicted many earlier ministerial statements. That is sangfroid.

In April, in a three-part investigation, Mediapart revealed that France’s anti-corruption agency (AFA) had found evidence that Dassault (the French manufacturing company) had agreed to pay one million Euros to a known middleman who is under investigation in India in connection with another defence deal, and had actually paid € 598,925 to an Indian company by name Defys Solutions (how appropriate!). Even at that nascent stage, this was as specific an allegation as can be (read: The Ghost of Rafale Appears, Indian Express. April 11, 2021). It was met with customary sangfroid — in India, but not in France.

Pieces Fall in Place

Now, more facts have tumbled out of the cupboard:

Now, more facts have tumbled out of the cupboard:

  • In 2012, in a public tender, Dassault was chosen to supply 126 Rafale aircraft to the Indian Air Force out of which 18 were to be in a fly-away condition and 108 to be assembled in India.
  • On March 25, 2015, the CEO of Dassault Aviation announced in the presence of the IAF Chief and the Chairman, HAL, that the contract between Dassault and HAL for manufacture of the aircraft in India and transfer of technology to HAL would be signed soon.
  • On March 26 (yes, the next day!), Dassault signed an MoU with a private Indian company for a “possible joint venture” for project management, R&D, design & engineering, assembly & manufacture, maintenance and training.
  • On April 8, at Paris, senior Indian officials accompanying the Prime Minister on an official visit confirmed that the Dassault-HAL agreement was on track and would be concluded shortly.
  • On April 10, at Paris, Prime Minister Modi announced that the Dassault-HAL deal would be rescinded and 36 aircraft, manufactured in France, would be purchased by the IAF.
  • On November 9, a strategic partnership agreement was signed between Dassault and the private Indian company. Dassault’s obligations would include manufacture, technology, know-how, manufacture of airframe sub-assemblies, final assembly line, armament upgradation, international marketing and technical assistance. The private Indian company would provide understanding of the Indian market place, production facilities and marketing with the government of India and the states.
  • In September 2016, an inter-governmental agreement was signed for sale of 36 Rafale aircraft.
  • On November 28, Dassault and the private Indian company signed a shareholders’ agreement with the private Indian company. Dassault pledged to provide up to €159 million (and hold 51 per cent equity) and the private Indian company up to €10 million (and hold 49 per cent equity).

On these facts, PNF, France’s public prosecution services, opened a new investigation and appointed a judge to head a judicial investigation.

Institutional Failure

When this controversy was building, four institutions of India — supposedly watchdogs — failed the country: the media, the Supreme Court, Parliament and the Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG). I am certain, and sad, that Parliament will remain defensive and defiant. I am also certain the C&AG will down its shutters and not re-open its 141-page report, of which 126 pages made no sense to a person of average intelligence.

However, there is a fresh breeze gently blowing in the courtrooms of the Supreme Court. The Court may yet be persuaded to review the inter-governmental agreement and the Justice Gogoi-authored judgment of December 14, 2018. I also place my faith in the media. Despite surrender by many and suppression of others, there are pens and voices in the media that can make themselves read and heard.

As for the people, will they remain sangfroid? In the original French, the word had another meaning: ‘cold blood’.

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