By Nageshwar Patnaik in Bhubaneswar, November 15, 2019: Political squabbling over defence deals has cost the nation heavily with India’s defense modernization efforts taking a back seat. It is in this context, the Supreme Court verdict on Rafale jets deal assumes much significance. Political parties henceforth are expected not to politicize defence purchases, which, however, by and large will depend on reforming and building an efficient procurement and indigenous production capability by the Narendra Modi led NDA government.

Threats to national security are complex and keep changing every day. But every time a government, be it the UPA or the NDA, makes a defence deal – there are allegation of corruption leading to political controversies. Procurement gets delayed or even suspended for an indefinite period and national security takes a hit and scams prevail.

The political mudslinging began soon after in 1986, India signed a deal with Swedish company AB Bofors for purchase of 400 howitzer guns. In April 1987, Swedish Radio alleged that the company had paid huge money to top Indian politicians and defence personnel to get the deal through. It sparked off a major political controversy in the country. And the controversy had direct bearing on politics in the run-up to the general elections with accusations of corruption and impropriety.

Defence minister VP Singh in the Congress government then resigned soon after. Corruption charges were leveled against the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi and it played a catalytic role in bringing down the government which purchased the howitzer for the Indian Army in 1989.

Interestingly, VP Singh made Bofors his poll cry in 1989 election. “Gali gali mein shor hai, Rajiv Gandhi chor hai” slogan spelt doom for the Congress. However, Rajiv Gandhi later got a clean chit in the Bofors case.

Ten years after the so called Bofors scam, this gun turned out to be the real hero of the Kargil war by inflicting huge casualties on the Pakistan forces in Kargil war. It was the first time that Bofors guns were used as a direct-fire role weapon.

Similarly, even before the Rafale deal was signed, it was spiked in controversy. The UPA government kept it pending. And for the NDA’s five full years, the Rafale deal has been the centre of a Congress versus BJP political battle. It was even an election issue.

Bitter verbal duel, character assassination, comments from former presidents of other countries, accusations against an industrialist and contradictory statements by bureaucrats and politicians on the pricing, the Rafale deal saw it all. Even leading media persons fired salvos at the Modi government for what they called dubious deal with a huge kickback.

However, unlike Bofors deal, the attempt to politicise the Rafale deal has squarely failed, evident from how Rahul Gandhi’s constant chant of “chowkidar chor hai” found no reverberation among the electorate in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

And finally, the stormy dust is now settled with a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court on Thursday delivered its verdict on the Rafale case, dismissing the review petitions filed by Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and Prashant Bhushan, seeking a probe into the Rs 59,000 crore deal between the Narendra Modi-led government and French manufacturer, Dassault Aviation. The Court found the review petitions to “lack merit”, and judged no grounds to file a First Incident Report (FIR).

The court also rejected their plea for an investigation by the CBI. It had earlier been convinced that the procedures followed with respect to the choice and pricing, and setting up the offset clause was sound in legal judgment.

In the interest of the nation, the Apex Court’s order must put an end to the controversy that serves neither strategic nor political interest. The whole controversy already has put a brake on the country’s plans to replace its fleet of aging combat aircraft.

It is undeniable that the government’s defence procurement policies have been subjected to criticism. Enormous delays in the procurement process thwart the urgency in defence procurement. The Comptroller and Auditor General of India’s (CAG’s) performance audit of capital acquisition in the Indian Air Force (IAF), placed before Parliament in February, 2019 clearly points out some chronic bottlenecks in the IAF’s defence procurement process.

The CAG report examined 11 contracts of capital acquisition signed between 2012-13 and 2017-18, with a total value of around Rs. 95,000 crore. It highlighted systemic issues in the acquisition process and gives recommendations to rectify deficiencies in the procurement process. Besides, Further, CAG recommended that technical experts with knowledge of the systems be involved in the acquisition process. CAG also observed a lack of consistency in technical evaluation across procurement cases. CAG recommended that the defence ministry structurally reform the entire procurement process to facilitate expeditious acquisition.

By now the defence ministry should have ensured implementation of CAG’s observations in the defence procurement process. The undue delay, complicated procedures and decision-making process have proved to be cost-ineffective. More importantly, it could lead to the acquisition of technologically inferior armaments while India must strive to get value for the public money it spends.

Prime Minister Modi has raised many expectations through a series of reforms paving the way to ease of doing business, and ease of living and creating national infrastructure to build a new India. With the Apex Court giving him a clean cheat in Rafale case, Modi must bring sweeping reforms in the all-important defence sector by formulating a cost-effective procurement process, facilitating development of indigenous capabilities, products, and technologies, which will go a long way to empower our armed forces and provide an edge in defending India’s national security, territorial integrity and sovereignty.

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