Rahul Gandhi targets PM Modi on defence deal, amid debate on India's military strength

Rahul Gandhi, President of India's main opposition Congress party, addresses his party's supporters during a public meeting in Gandhinagar, India on March 12, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW DELHI - Amid the air strikes on Pakistan and a debate over whether India's military modernisation has fallen behind, the Modi government's decision to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets from a French company remains a political issue in the run-up to India's elections.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi has continued to raise the deal at press conferences and rallies, alleging corruption in the deal struck by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a particularly acrimonious election campaign that has seen each side level personal charges against the other.

The controversy, which has been raging for some time, has been renewed by revelations, published by The Hindu newspaper, that the Defence Ministry raised strong objections to "parallel negotiations" conducted by the Prime Minister's Office in the deal for the jets with France in 2016, which weakened India's negotiating position.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has denied any corruption or impropriety.

Prior to the revelation, controversy had been raging about the undisclosed price of the jets and the choice of a private company with little experience in building fighter jets over the original choice of a state-run manufacturer.

"Law should apply to everybody equally," said Mr Gandhi on Wednesday (March 13) in an interaction with students in Chennai. "PM Modi has his name in government documents which say that he is directly responsible for negotiating in parallel... Investigate everybody."

Mr Gandhi told a press conference on Wednesday that the Congress did not question the capability of the fighter jet but the way the deal was struck.

India is going to elections in seven phases over five weeks starting April 11.

Among key themes are issues like farmers getting low prices for their produce to unemployment and national security.

The latter has become a key poll issue amid the nationalistic fervour triggered by India's air strikes against Pakistan over the Pulwama attacks, in which 40 Indian soldiers were killed by terror group Jaish e Mohammed.

Pakistan carried out a tit-for-tat strike in which a dogfight led to the downing of an Indian fighter jet and capture of pilot Abhinandan Varthaman.

Yet, the BJP has sought to dilute the Congress charge by folding the Rafale jet into the political narrative on national security and accused the previous Congress government, which had started negotiating the deal, of delays in modernising the Indian Air Force.

Mr Modi had said that the Indian Air Force would have been more potent against Pakistan had it possessed the Rafale.

While BJP leader Prakash Javdekar told reporters: "What is Rafale? I always describe Rafale as 'Rahul fail'. He thinks that if lies are spoken repeatedly, they become the truth. But it does not happen."

Still, the matter has also reached the Supreme Court where public interest petitions, including one by former BJP ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie, have been filed asking for details of the deal and a court-monitored probe.

At the last hearing, the government maintained the Hindu newspaper report was based on confidential documents that were stolen from the defence ministry.

The government faced a backlash for indicating it could take action against the Hindu newspaper for publishing from the confidential documents.

Yet, some analysts are unsure over whether the Rafale controversy and its intricate details over offset clauses and price escalation will appeal to an electorate.

Other than the Congress, most other opposition parties have not picked up the issue.

"The issue of unemployment and farm crisis is much widespread in urban and rural parts of the country. So a campaign on Rafale may not have that much impact," said Dr N Bhaskara Rao of the Centre for Media Studies .

Mr Rasheed Kidwai, journalist and author, said it was part of the Congress campaign to raise Rafale while maintaining the focus on the problem of unemployment and the farm crisis.

"Mr Rahul Gandhi has been very relentless and consistent about Rafale. In India defence deals come in the realm of suspicion and distrust even if there is no conclusive evidence," said Mr Kidwai. "It is an issue. It is not a non issue and it has set people thinking."

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