The government has not answered the questions raised by the Opposition, mainly Congress president Rahul Gandhi, about the agreement for the purchase of a number of Rafale fighter jets from France. The UPA government had negotiated to buy 126 Rafales from Dassault Aviation. The plan was to buy 18 aircraft off the shelf and assemble 108 more at HAL, Bengaluru. But in 2015, a decision to buy 36 aircraft was announced during Prime Minister Narendra Modis visit to France. A purchase agreement was signed in 2016. The terms of purchase were changed and the price of the aircraft increased under the new deal. The main questions about the deal now are how much the country has to pay for the aircraft as per the prime ministers agreement, why HAL was bypassed and Dassault was allowed to pick a private company with no defence production experience, but whose promoter is seen as being close to the prime minister, as the Indian partner in the deal, and whether all necessary clearances like that from the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) were obtained before the prime minister committed himself to the deal.
The government has stoutly, and wrongly, refused to disclose the price of the aircraft. Defence minister Nirmala Sitaraman had first said that all questions about the deal would be answered. But later, in her statement in Parliament last week, she refused to share the detailed break-up of the cost of the aircraft arguing that there is a secrecy clause in the deal. This is unacceptable, because secrecy clauses are about technical and operational details and not about financial costs. The government had once revealed the basic price of the aircraft as about Rs 670 crore a piece but is now refusing to disclose the final price. The defence ministry has said that the deal is "better in terms of capability, price, equipment, delivery, maintenance, training, etc. It has the responsibility to substantiate this assertion with facts. Instead, it has made a largely political response to the demand for details, criticising the opposition for it.
Since taxpayers money is used to make the purchase, they have the right to know how it is spent. It is no small amount either. The government can disclose the relevant details without impinging on the demands of national security. In fact, it is rule-bound to share the information with the CAG and the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament. A proposal that the details may be shared with Opposition leaders in confidence has also been rejected by the government. It cannot resort to calling all those who ask questions "anti-national" and accuse them of wanting to undermine national security. Suspicions of irregularities will only be strengthened if the government refuses to answer these questions to the satisfaction of the people.