Is the media playing fair over Rafale deal?

Last Updated: Wed, Feb 13, 2019 13:34 hrs
Rafale Fighter Jet (AP photo)

For the evolution of healthy democratic practices, it is essential that the opposition keeps the government on its toes through unrelenting questioning of the policies and performance. However, such criticism should be objective and based on truth. False accusations invariably backfire and show the critics as unscruplous and untrustworthy entities. They lose credibility and the public starts considering them to be ‘moles and plants’ of adversarial interests. Such a development does immense damage to the body politic and psyche of the nation. Two recent incidents are recalled here.

Alleged Waiver of Anti-Corruption Clauses in the Rafale Deal

Headlines of a newspaper dated 11 Feb 2019 screamed that the government made unprecedented concessions with regard to critical provisions for anti-corruption penalties and making payments through an escrow account in the Inter Government Agreement (IGA) signed between India and France on 23 September 2016.

The paper claims that the provisions of the Defence Procurement Procedure-2013 (DPP) were violated by not adhering to the mandatory Standard Contract Document, given at Chapter V of the procedure. It goes on to accuse the government of dropping clauses on “Penalty for use of Undue Influence, Agents/Agency Commission, and Access to Company Accounts” in the Supply Protocols which form part of the Standard Contract Document.

One does not know whether to pity the said newspaper for its sheer ignorance of the procedure or to slam it for malicious and unethical reporting. The paper has most dishonestly omitted to inform the readers that the Standard Contract Document is not applicable to IGA. It is yellow journalism and scandal-mongering at their worst.

Para 60 of DPP unambiguously states, “The Standard Contract Document at Chapter V indicates the general conditions of contract that would be the guideline for all acquisitions.... However, for single vendor procurements, if there is a situation where Govt of India has entered into agreements with that vendor/country regarding specific contractual clauses, then the terms and conditions of such agreements would supersede the corresponding standard clauses of DPP 2013.”

Para 71 of DPP specifically refers to procurement proposals under IGA. It reads, “There may be occasions when procurements would have to be done from friendly foreign countries which may be necessitated due to geo-strategic advantages that are likely to accrue to our country. Such procurements would not classically follow the Standard Procurement Procedure and the Standard Contract Document but would be based on mutually agreed provisions by the Governments of both the countries.”

It needs to be recalled here that India has been buying defence equipment on government to government basis from Russia for decades. Similarly, starting with the purchase of AN/TPQ-37 Fire Finder counter-battery artillery radar sets in 2002, India has signed many major deals with the US government. No IGA has followed the Standard Contract Document and the agreements do not contain any so-called anti-corruption clauses. The foreign governments consider it an affront. They resent Indian government trying to occupy the high moral ground of being the paragon of honesty and treating other parties as devious connivers who need to be kept under the leash of anti-corruption clauses.

IGA is a solemn commitment between the two sovereigns, based on mutual trust. The very idea of one government asking the other to give undertaking on integrity issues is an anathema to international relations. Similarly, the point raised about sovereign guarantee is totally misplaced. No country gives that. It must be appreciated that the French government went out of its way to give a letter of comfort to satisfy Indian sceptics.

The Case of the Infamous Note

A note initiated by Dy Secy (Air II) on 24 November 2015 has been published by the said paper to claim that PMO’s Office had been having parallel parlays on the Rafale deal. The note throws up many disturbing issues.

Why did Dy Secy (Air II), who had nothing to do with the Rafale deal initiate such a note? As shown in the organisation tree below, there are three well-defined verticals in the Department of Defence of the Defence Ministry, each under an Additional Secretary level officer.

Addl Secy-I deals with revenue expenditure and routine administrative matters of the three services. He has nothing whatsoever to do with capital procurements, not even remotely. Dy Secy (Air II) comes under JS (Air). His channel of reporting is through JS (Air) and Addl Secy-I. Indian bureaucracu is notorious for guarding its turf aggressively and brooks no interference from intruders. Why was Dy Secy (Air II) allowed to meddle in capital procurements?

The Acquisition Wing under DG Acq is the executive arm of the Defence Acquisition Council and is responsible for the acquisition of new weaponry and defence systems. Contract Negotiating Committee (CNC) is constituted under the aegis of DG Acq. As per Appendix B of DPP-2013, the standard composition of CNC consists of Acquisition Manager, Technical Manager, Finance Manager, Advisor (Cost), Quality Control Officer, User Representative, Repair Agency Representative and Representative of Contract Management Branch at the Service Headquarters. Most members are of Jt Secy level. There is no representative of Addl Secy-I. Normally, Acquisition Manager heads CNC. However, DG Acqn may nominate a service officer to head CNC with the approval of the Defence Minister. In the case of the Rafale deal, Air Marshal SPB Sinha, an officer with outstanding credentials and impeccable probity record was hand picked to head CNC. The country could not have selected a more suitable officer.

The question arises as to what prompted Dy Secy (Air II), a much too junior an officer, to meddle in the matters that did not concern him at all? Was it done at someone’s behest? Was it a part of a well-orchestrated campaign to derail the Rafale deal?

Further, why did Dy Secy (Air II) not follow the laid-down chain of correspondence? Why did he bypass his own Jt Secy and Addl Secy-I to address the note directly to the Jt Secy of the Acqn Wing with whom he had no dealings whatsoever?

More importantly, why did the Acq Manager, DG Acquisition and Def Secy not question Dy Secy (Air II) for his locus standi in the matter? Was this issue beyond the competence of these bureaucrats or were they a party to the malicious plot or did they lack courage to tick him off for interfering in matters that did not concern him. Instead they took serious cognizance of the note. Surprisingly, quite unlike the functioning of the lethargic Indian bureaucracy, the note moved with abnormal speed. Jt Secy of the Acqn Wing and DG Acqn saw the note on the day it was initiated, i.e 24 November 2015. What was the hurry? Was any higher-up overseeing and expediting the move of the file?

Perhaps the most strange aspect of the whole affair is the fact that a junior officer in MoD could have the audicity to fault the functioning of PMO’s office and accusing it of weakening the negotiating position of MoD. India bureaucracy is notorious for its spinelessness and sychophancy. No junior officer will ever dare to use such harsh language for PMO’s office. Something is certainly amiss.

Finally

It is apparent even to the laypersons that a deliberate and concerted campaign is being carried out to tarnish the image of the government and to prevent it from placing repeat orders on Dassault. The schemers pretend to smell a rat where none exist. In fact, they are attempting to plant a rat to discredit the Rafale deal. It becomes worse when a reputed media house is seen as an unprincipled, unethical and villainous rogue, masquerading as a champion of probity in public affairs.

It must be conceded that in a major procurement of this nature, all officials involved tend to offer their considered opinion and advice to make the deal rock solid. It is their duty and they are fully justified to suggest various safeguards. The final decision making powers lie in the hands of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS). It is for CCS and other empowered entities to weigh all suggestions and take the final call.

India bureaucracy is like a quagmire. Every bureaucrat has mastered the art of playing safe by putting up incongruous and infructuous notings on files that can stall the process for ever. If the decision makers get cowed down, no proposal will ever fructify. As the Rafale deal shows, only strong leadership can overcome these impediments.

To criticise and fault the government is fully justified provided the facts support allegations. It is grossly unfair to invent wild allegations, in the hope that some accusations may stick. There has been no trail or even a hint of any sleaze money in the Rafale deal so far. There were no middlemen or agents. In fact, it should be considered a master stroke by the Indian government to make up critical deficiencies of the Air Force in an expeditious, diligent and far-sighted manner.

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Major General Mrinal Suman, AVSM, VSM, PhD, commanded an Engineer Regiment on the Siachen Glacier, the most hostile battlefield in the world. A highly qualified officer (B Tech, MA (Public Administration), MSc (Defence Studies) and a Doctorate in Public Administration) he was also the Task Force Commander at Pokhran and was responsible for designing and sinking shafts for the nuclear tests of May 1998.

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