As the political row over the Rafale jet contract raged, the Supreme Court on Wednesday directed the Modi government to provide to it details of the steps taken in the decision making process that led to the deal with France.
Seeking the details in a sealed cover by October 29, the apex court at the same time made it clear that it does not want information on pricing and technical parameters relating to the fighter aircraft. Terming the submissions made in two Public Interest Litigations(PIL) as "grossly inadequate", a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi also said the court was not issuing notice to the Centre on them but wanted to satisfy itself about the legitimacy of the decision making process. The Centre sought dismissal of the PILs, terming them "political interest petitions".
The direction by the apex court came even as the Congress accused the Modi government of "manipulating" the process of the Rafale agreement by "punishing" bureaucrats who raised objections to the deal and rewarding "obliging officials". Congress president Rahul Gandhi also raised questions on Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman's France visit, alleging that work has begun to justify the prime minister's decision to buy the Rafale aircraft from French aerospace major Dassault Aviation.
He took to Twitter to say while the Supreme Court has asked for the details of the Rafale decision-making process, the decision to buy the jets was taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Gandhi alleged that processes to justify Modi's decision are being invented. "The Supreme Court has asked for the RAFALE decision making process. It's quite simple really... "The PM decided. The processes to justify his decision are yet to be invented. But work has begun. "Ps. In this connection, Raksha Mantri is leaving for France tonight," he said. Sitharaman is headed to France on a three-day visit starting tomorrow that comes in the backdrop of a huge controversy over the purchase of 36 Rafale jets.
At a public meeting in Bikaner in poll-bound Rajasthan, Gandhi targeted Modi over "corruption" in the Rafale deal repeating the charge that Anil Ambani's Reliance group benefited from a related offset contract. He had levelled similar charges - denied earlier by the government and the Reliance group - in the meetings he addressed Tuesday in the state's Dholpur, Bharatpur and Dausa districts. The apex court in its order asked the government to provide the information in three separate sealed covers with the Secretary General of the apex court instead of the registry and fixed the PILs, filed by lawyers Vineet Dhanda and M L Sharma, for hearing on October 31. The top court said the information sought would not cover the issue of "pricing or the question of technical suitability of the equipment for purposes of the requirement of the Indian Air Force".
"However, we would like to be apprised by the Government of India of the details of the steps in the decision making process leading to the award of the order for the defence equipment in question i.e. Rafale Jet-Fighters (36 in number)," the bench, also comprising Justices S K Kaul and K M Joseph, said. "We also make it clear that while requiring the Government of India to act in the above terms we have not taken into account any of the averments made in the writ petitions which appear to be inadequate and deficient. Our above order is only for the purpose of satisfying ourselves in the matter," it said.
At the outset, the bench asked Attorney General K K Venugopal, "Suppose we ask you (the Centre) to give the details of the decision making process only to the judges, how will you react." It cannot be shown to anyone in the interest of national security and other issues involved in the defence procurement process, Venugopal responded. The bench then posed another query, "What if we ask you to give details without technical details of aircraft?" During the 15-minute-long hearing, the bench heard submissions from Sharma, Dhanda and Venugopal. Venugopal said the petitions have not raised any public interest concerning the poor and rather they are "political interest petitions" and the petitioners have selectively quoted the questions which have been answered in Parliament.
He also submitted that a bitter political fight was going on in the country over the Rafale deal in the election year and entertaining the petitions may be used politically and moreover, such policy decisions cannot be reviewed judicially. "This is a political petition and not a public interest litigation and is part of bitter fight going on between ruling and opposition party. If notice is issued, it will go to the prime minister... Please don't entertain such petitions," Venugopal said. The apex court was hearing three petitions seeking several directions, including a court-monitored SIT probe into the deal and submission of details of the agreement in a sealed cover to it.
Congress leader and RTI activist Tehseen Poonawala, who had sought a direction against the Centre on why the Union Cabinet's approval was not sought as part of the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) before signing the procurement deal with France on September 23, 2016, however, withdrew his PIL against the fighter jet deal at the start of the hearing.