[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Rafale deal is threatening to change the narrative of the 2019 elections, with the controversy adding new layers of complication with each passing week. In July this year, when Congress president Rahul Gandhi questioned the confidentiality clause in India’s deal with the French government, which the Modi government had been using as defence not to disclose the price details of the deal, it did not produce any real fireworks. Rahul had claimed that he got to know of this at a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, where it was reportedly clarified that there was no secrecy clause. A prompt denial by the French government afterwards seemed to blunt Rahul’s claim.
But further disclosures since then have given the controversy many more twists and turns, making it snowball into a full-fledged slanging match between the Modi government and Rahul’s Congress, with claims, counter-claims and denials as well as rebuttals. More revelations about how PM Modi took the negotiations in his own hands, sidestepping the process that had been carrying on till then, to get his ‘friend’ Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence a contract to take up manufacturing in India, sacrificing the public sector HAL, which had all but secured the deal when it was initiated by the UPA government, have further muddled the issue.
Then came the startling disclosure by former French President Francois Hollande that the inclusion of the Ambani company was at the behest of India and France had nothing to do with it. Rahul has pounced on the statement to buttress his claim that Modi’s conduct was not above board and there was an agenda. That Hollande later backtracked on his statement, just as the French government and Dassault Aviation clarified that it was the company’s decision, has not helped clear the air much.
The Modi government on its part sees a conspiracy in Hollande’s claim and its timing, with finance minister Arun Jaitley seeking to link a Rahul tweet on August 30 warning of impending news ‘in the next couple of weeks’ to the ‘orchestrated’ claim. The cancellation of a scheduled trip to Paris by defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, amidst an assertion by the government that there is no question of cancelling the deal, shows further build-up is on the way.
The new dimensions elevate the Rafale controversy to the level of the Bofors scam that had led to the defeat of the Rajiv Gandhi government. Irrespective of the claims and counter-claims, Rahul Gandhi has succeeded in planting a doubt in people’s mind about Modi’s claim of corruption-free government. It has given Congress and the Opposition a more deadly bomb than even the demonetisation fiasco. ‘Chowkidar turns chor’ slogan can perhaps match any of Modi’s catchy calls that strike instant chord with the crowd.