The Lok Sabha debate on the Rafale jet deal inked by the Modi government was widely seen as a face-off between Congress President Rahul Gandhi and the BJP’s trouble-shooter and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.
Though the discussion followed a familiar trajectory, with charges and counter-charges flying thick and fast, the acrimonious and noisy exchange threw up some welcome surprises for the Congress president.
Rahul Gandhi Wins Unlikely Support
Having led a solitary battle against Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the Rafale jet agreement for the past several months, Rahul Gandhi’s persistent campaign got a shot in the arm when he won support from unusual quarters. The Biju Janata Dal (which generally backs the BJP on key issues), the Shiv Sena (the ruling party’s ally), and the Trinamool Congress also questioned the Modi government on the defence pact.
This was indeed a far cry from the recent past when Rahul Gandhi had virtually got no backing from the other opposition parties.
Except for the Left parties, the other regional players had chosen to remain silent on this issue or had come up with a weak response. But after Wednesday, it looks like the controversy over the purchase of the French Rafale fighter jets has returned to the national political centre stage.
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The issue was believed to be a closed chapter after the Supreme Court on 14 December dismissed the demand for a court-monitored inquiry into the Rafale deal, stating that it had no reason to doubt the process of decision-making into the purchase of the 36 fighter jets. The court had also said it was not its job to go into the pricing of the fighter jets. The apex court’s verdict was predictably publicised by the BJP as a major victory for the Modi government.
Congress’s Change of Stance
Rahul Gandhi’s campaign against the Rafale deal is centred on the allegation that the BJP-led government had paid a far higher price for the aircraft than that negotiated by the Congress-led UPA government, and has accused Modi personally of crony capitalism, by insisting that Dassault picked private entrepreneur Anil Ambani as its offset partner in place of the public sector undertaking Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).
Despite the court ruling, the Congress continued to press for its demand for an inquiry into the deal by a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC), though its campaign seemed to have lost its sting following the court order.
When the winter session of Parliament opened in December, the Congress had insisted that it would only agree to a debate on the Rafale issue if its demand for the constitution of a JPC was first accepted.
However, it suddenly changed track and agreed to a discussion. The rethink was occasioned by several factors.
First, the party felt it was imperative to set the record straight in light of the BJP claiming a moral victory after the Supreme Court order. Second, the party felt emboldened after it laid hands on a audio tape in which, according to the Congress, Goa Minister Vishwajit Rane is heard telling another person that Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar had told a Cabinet meeting that he was in possession of all files pertaining to the Rafale deal. Parrikar was the union defence minister when the agreement was finalised. Both Rane and the Goa chief minister have dismissed the audio clip as forgery.
Congress Needs to Hit Where it Hurts
Third, the Congress also felt the need to bring the focus back to the Rafale deal after the Modi government turned the tables on it with the extradition of AgustaWestland middleman Christian Michael, who is alleged to have links with Sonia Gandhi. With corruption charges being levelled against the Gandhis, the Congress had to change the political discourse by resurrecting the debate on the Rafale deal and Modi’s role in it.
Rattled by the fresh salvo fired by the Congress, Arun Jaitley shifted focus in his Lok Sabha intervention by launching a personal attack against the Gandhi family, while accusing Rahul Gandhi of having a “natural dislike for the truth.”
His stinging response focused less on the facts of the Rafale case and more on the alleged involvement of the Gandhis in the AgustaWestland chopper row, the Bofors kickbacks case and the National Herald case.
In particular, reference to the AgustaWestland case, Jaitley drew special attention to the interrogation of middleman Christian Michel who, Jaitley claimed, had mentioned a “Mrs Gandhi” and the “son of an Italian lady.”
While the Congress is predictably upbeat, in that it has succeeded in cornering the Modi government, there is also a downside to its ongoing campaign.
In the process of proving that Modi is not as clean as he claims to be, the main Opposition party may end up shifting attention from bread-butter issues like the agrarian crisis, growing unemployment and the NDA government’s failure to deliver on its electoral promises. The Congress would do well to remember that the Modi government is far more vulnerable on these counts.
(The writer is a senior Delhi-based journalist who can be reached at @anitaakat. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)
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