Rahul Gandhi's Rafale attacks fall flat despite media's peculiar reluctance to fact check Congress president

Sreemoy Talukdar
Rahul Gandhi set off a controversy when he accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of running away from the Rafale deal debate in the Lok Sabha and letting a "woman" (Nirmala Sitharaman) defend him in the Parliament

Congress president Rahul Gandhi never fails to mention how he, unlike Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is not "scared" of taking questions from the media in press conferences. Rahul has a point here. While Modi has appeared for media interviews but not a single press conference during his tenure as prime minister, Rahul ostensibly loves news conferences and claims that fielding questions from the media is "fun": understandable when one is largely spared scrutiny and tough questions.

For all the access that media enjoys vis-à-vis Rahul, it has shown a strange reluctance so far to fact-check the Congress president's claims and hold him accountable for his words. This trend was visible even on Wednesday when Rahul appeared for a news conference in the evening and repeated the same set of claims that had been rebutted by Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley earlier that day in Parliament.

What's more, Rahul's comments to the media on the controversial audio tape €" which the Congress party claims is the "recorded conversation" of Goa health minister Vishwajit Rane "revealing" details of "secret Rafale files stored in Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar's bedroom" €" appeared inconsistent with facts and the turn of events that played out on the floor of the House.

The Congress president has asked four questions to Modi on the Rafale deal through Twitter. Here are five questions the media should have asked or Rahul during the press conference:

1. Why didn't Rahul take up Arun Jaitley's challenge on the audiotape if he is convinced that the clip is authentic?

During the press conference, Rahul said he had read "part of the transcript and the tape is authentic." The Congress president had refused to certify the veracity of the tape in Parliament when his attempts to play it in Lok Sabha met with resistance from the treasury benches. Speaker Sumitra Mahajan urged Rahul to give it in writing that the clip is "authentic" before allowing it to be played inside Parliament in accordance with House rules. Faced with the challenge, Rahul backtracked. He also didn't read the transcript after insisting on doing so. At the press conference, however, Rahul claimed the Speaker disallowed him from playing it, therefore the question of "authentication doesn't arise".

According to Jaitley, Rahul "wants to rely on a tape that is false and fabricated. Let him authenticate it, place it on the table of the House and open himself for an action of priviledge."

Jaitley said Rahul must take responsibility and face expulsion from the House under a privilege motion is the tape is found to be false. The finance minister dared the Congress president to place the document in Parliament if he is sure of its authenticity. Neither did Rahul take up Jaitley's challenge, nor did he backtrack from his claim. Though the entire sequence was captured on camera and aired to millions on TV, the media didn't pursue this line of questioning.

2. Where did Rahul get the figure of Rs 30,000 crore worth of offsets to Anil Ambani's company?

The facts of Rafale have been discussed threadbare over countless forums. A Supreme Court bench, headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi dismissed PILs seeking a court-monitored probe, saying it has no objections to any part of the deal. On the offset clauses, the judgment stated: "We do not find any substantial material on record to show that this is a case of commercial favouritism to any party by the Indian Government."

The offset clause €" as laid out during the UPA rule on defence purchases from foreign companies €" requires Dassault to make purchases in India for 50 percent of the contract value. Therefore, if the total value of the deal is worth Rs 58,000 crore, half of that amount comes to around Rs 29,000 crore.

Now, since Anil Ambani's Reliance Defence is one among around 120 offset partners for the deal, their total business share won't exceed 3 percent of the total Rs 29,000 crore Rafale offset contract. That means a sum less than Rs 1,000 crore. Jaitley told Parliament on Wednesday that it won't be more than Rs 800 crore. Apart from the Supreme Court, which went over these details, media reports too have corroborated the government's figures.

If that is the case, how does Rahul justify his charge? It is strange that given the easy availability of these figures in public domain, the media didn't hold the Congress president accountable for his words.

3. What is the basis of Rahul's contention that the PM is a 'thief' when Supreme Court has given a clean chit to Rafale deal?

On three contentious issues raised by the Congress and made into subject of the petitions against the government, the Supreme Court cleared the deal. The CJI-headed Bench, also comprising justices SK Kaul and KM Joseph, found no occasion to doubt the decision-making process in the multi-billion dollar deal, observed that there was no substantial evidence of commercial favouritism to any private entity on the issue of offset partner and found no merit in claims that there was huge escalation of costs.

In conclusion, the judgment stated: "In view of our findings on all the three aspects, and having heard the matter in detail, we find no reason for any intervention by this court on the sensitive issue of purchase of 36 defence aircrafts by the Indian government. Perception of individuals cannot be the basis of a fishing and roving enquiry by this court, especially in such matters. We, thus, dismiss all the writ petitions, leaving it to the parties to bear their own costs."

Given the finality of this judgment, it is unclear on what basis the Congress president is accusing the prime minister of dishonesty and stealing. If he has clinching proof of Modi's wrongdoing, it is strange that this evidence (or evidences) have not been brought to the notice of the court or made available in public domain. Once again, the media has failed to highlight the anomaly between Rahul's claims and facts.

4. How may a Joint Parliamentary Committee 'reveal truth' when Supreme Court judgment finds no reason for intervention or probe?

After shifting goalposts several times on Rafale deal, Congress and Opposition parties have finally settled on demanding for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe. The political ploy behind Congress' demand is understandable and the party cannot be faulted for trying to pile on the pressure on the NDA. The legitimate question that should have been asked of Rahul Gandhi during the press conference, is that how will a JPC €"  subject to political partisanship €" conduct a "fair probe" into a deal that has been cleared by none less than the Supreme Court?

Even if we disregard Jaitley's arguments €" that JPC in Bofors sought to whitewash the scandal instead of finding the truth €" the fact remains that the panel whose political neutrality is suspect may end up fanning the Rafale debate instead of bringing us any closer to resolution. Political gamesmanship is a poor basis for constitution of a JPC that will undermine the primacy and authority of the Supreme Court. It may be a slippery slope.

5. Why did Rahul Gandhi call a scribe a 'pliable journalist' during a press conference? Does it amount to intimidation of the press?

During Wednesday's news conference, while referring to ANI editor Smita Prakash €" who conducted the prime minister's interview on Tuesday €" Rahul used the words 'pliable journalist'. He said: "You saw the prime minister's interview yesterday€¦ matlab pliable journalist, woh question bhi kar rahi thi, pradhan mantri ka answer bi de rahi thi, side mein (she was asking questions as well as providing answers on the side)." Earlier in the Parliament, Rahul called the interview "staged".

The journalist called Rahul's attempt to ridicule her work a "cheap shot".

Jaitley has criticised the Congress president for trying to "intimidate an independent editor" and called him the grandson of 'Emergency dictator' (a reference to Indira Gandhi) who "displayed his real DNA". He also called for a response from the Editor's Guild. The real problem, however, goes deeper. When political leaders, especially those occupying high positions in public office or party, openly display their disrespect for journalists, that has a deleterious effect on the moral of the media.

It also makes journalists vulnerable to attacks from party affiliates and trolls on social media. Rahul may have his opinions on the Modi interview, but his disparaging comments can be construed as an attack on the independence of the Fourth Estate. He, however, didn't face any scrutiny from the media while making the comment.

Also See: Rahul Gandhi's offensive on Rafale deal in Parliament isolates BJP, highlights Modi's reluctance to engage with Opposition

Rahul Gandhi says Narendra Modi to face open book Rafale exam in Lok Sabha today, asks if PM will 'show up or send proxy'

Narendra Modi turns Opposition's weapon into its vulnerability; public trust, corruption may form fulcrum of BJP's 2019 strategy

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