Congress Vs BJP On Rafale Deal: Four Key Questions Answered

A deal for 36 Rafale fighter jets has got the BJP and the Congress at loggerheads.

A Rafale fighter jet, manufactured by Dassault Aviation SA, is seen performing an air display at the 13th Dubai Airshow at Dubai World Central in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg)
A Rafale fighter jet, manufactured by Dassault Aviation SA, is seen performing an air display at the 13th Dubai Airshow at Dubai World Central in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg)

A deal for 36 Rafale fighter jets has got the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress at loggerheads. Congress President Rahul Gandhi has accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of not being truthful about the deal, demanding the government reveal the price it paid for the aircraft. The government has countered, saying making the details public would compromise national security.

So what’s the controversy all about? BloombergQuint spoke to experts on the issue to find out.

  • Bharat Karnad, research professor in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research.
  • Ajai Shukla, columnist on Strategic Affairs, Defence and Diplomacy at Business Standard newspaper.
  • Pushan Das, programme coordinator, at Observer Research Foundation.
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How Much Did The Rafale Aircraft Really Cost India?

Ajai Shukla: The Congress is overstating the cost of the aircraft and the BJP is understating. There are some things that are separate from the cost of the aircraft and some that are definitely part of it.

For instance, 1.8 billion euros for spare parts, 300 million euro for maintenance, 700 million euro component for weaponry

These cannot be added to the cost as the Congress has done. But at the same time, the cost of India-specific enhancements, which include the avionics and radars that go into the aircraft, is clearly a part of the aircraft. Now if you add those, the cost comes to 138.8 million euro per aircraft which boils down to Rs 917 crore per aircraft.

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Did The Modi Government Pay Too Much? Is It Fair To Compare Costs From The UPA Regime?

Bharat Karnad: It’s fair to compare. The United Progressive Alliance government had in mind the total transfer of technology. The Congress in its time had negotiated a price that was some $2 billion more than what we are paying for 36 aircraft, and that deal was for 126 Rafale aircraft. True, it was sometime back in 2010, but even if you bring in the escalated costs, I can’t image the escalation would have gone so much for so few aircraft and without any transfer of technology.

The technology was the basic reason why Rafale has been touted as a very good buy by the Indian Air Force and its transfer was what the government then said was its selling point. Now you have a 36 aircraft compliment which really amounts to nothing in operational terms.

Because you cannot launch a major campaign with 36 aircraft. If, on the other hand, the air force and others are seeing it as a wedge to enlarge the deal to eventually have 100 more such aircraft in the fleet, then that is a different thing. In which case the cost becomes even more stark. Without the transfer of technology, without any other benefits to the county. So that is where the real controversy is.

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Will Revealing The Price Compromise National Security?

Bharat Karnad: The government’s position is indefensible. The decision was made virtually on a whim by the Prime Minister in Paris. The accompanying foreign secretary didn’t know about it. I don’t know who else knew about it. If you spring such decisions on a government without the prior nod by the Cabinet Committee on Security, then you have a political problem.

How was this decision made? Was Mr. Modi competent in terms of knowing the technical implications of this deal and the attributes of aircraft to decide on his own, that we want this aircraft and announces it in Paris? His French counterpart, then President Hollande, was overjoyed. What was the reason? Was it a political reason to try and please his host?

Obviously, on a technical basis, the buy is very questionable. You can argue the pros and cons, but the cons are far more than the pros. So it becomes problematic to support such a deal. I think that is the real problem that the government has. It is unable to come up with a reasonable argument as to why 36 aircraft were bought and the conditions that they were agreed on by the Prime Minister, perhaps, vocally in Paris, and then that committee that followed up with the price negotiation committee and so on. On two counts, it is controversial. The political decisions and then the ultimate deal that was hammered together by the price negotiation committee on the price and in other terms of technology and so on.

Pushan Das: A lot of information is in the public domain. All that the government has to do is consolidate those figures and give it out. If they want to be more transparent they can always declare these things to a private committee. Give security clearance to a few of the opposition leaders, get them on to a committee and explain to them why you spent what, and why you can’t disclose this in public.

Was The Rafale Jet The Best Buy For India?

Pushan Das: Even if there is technology transfer, does that result in any real technology capability, indigenous capability in India’s defence? Probably, not. Because under this specific deal, Dassault can choose where they want to put in half the value of that offset cost. A lot of this offset is being put into civilian businesses of Dassault. Into building the falcon, building jets, etc. So, will these offset result in improving India’s defence capabilities? Probably not.

Ajay Shukla: To buy the seventh kind of fighter; we already have six. Just 36 of those fighters. You are putting in place the whole logistics infrastructure and maintenance and operational infrastructure for just 36 Rafale aircraft. It’s a waste of money. There is only one reason for buying 36 aircraft, and that is if you are using it as a nuclear delivery platform and potentially, it has been argued that the Rafale is being bought as a nuclear delivery platform.

But even there, India has much better nuclear delivery options. If there was a requirement it could have modified the Bhramos missile to deliver nuclear weapons and launch those from the Sukhoi-30. There really is no good argument for buying the Rafale.

The air force is desperate for fighters, sure. But it is not desperate for these fighters, it desperate for a particular kind of fighter that you can buy cheaply, in large numbers, put in place the infrastructure, operate them economically in the way that good defence planners do. Rafale doesn’t meet any of these bills.