India‘s top court has ruled that there was no wrongdoing in the government’s awarding of the contract in a multibillion-dollar warplane deal with France, handing a boost to Narendra Modi’s ruling party months before a general election.
The Supreme Court on Friday declined demands to order a court-monitored probe into corruption allegations around the controversial defence deal.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Congress party have been at loggerheads over the $8.7bn deal to buy 36 Rafale planes from France and a decision to pick Reliance Defence as a domestic partner.
Opposition parties, including Congress and the Left, say India overpaid for the planes and are also questioning why tycoon Anil Ambani’s Reliance, a private firm with no experience in the defence sector, was awarded the contract instead of the state-run manufacturer Hindustan Aeronautics.
Rival political outfits have protested across the country against what they allege is a “corrupt” deal favouring one of India’s richest industrialists.
Congress party chief Rahul Gandhi had previously raised the matter in parliament and attacked Modi and Ambani in several election rallies, accusing them of duping the nation.
Prior to Friday’s ruling, India’s Supreme Court had sought details in sealed envelopes from the government over the multibillion-dollar deal.
The case was heard by a three-judge bench, headed by newly-installed Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi.
“We are satisfied that there is no occasion to really doubt the process, and even if minor deviations have occurred, that would not result in either setting aside the contract, or requiring a detailed scrutiny by the Court,” the court ruling said.
Ranjan Gogoi added that scrutiny “will have to be made keeping in mind the confines of national security.”
“We do not find any substantial material on record to show that this is a case of commercial favouritism to any party by the Indian Government,” the ruling stated.
Renewed focus on the deal could have had political consequences for the right-wing government in New Delhi. The BJP welcomed Friday’s ruling.
“We stand vindicated today,” said BJP spokesperson Zafar Islam. “The false propaganda of the opposition has been rejected by the top court. This should set the matter to rest. This is a big political victory for the ruling party and a loss of face for the opposition which has been needlessly gunning for the Prime Minister.”
The Supreme Court has clearly stated that it is outside their jurisdiction to probe into the #RafaleDeal. We continue our demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee to investigate the #RafaleScam. Sign this petition to demand transparency: https://t.co/NnqEJCCgOX
— Congress (@INCIndia) December 14, 2018
The lawyer who argued the case for the petitioners seeking a probe into the deal disagreed with the court’s decision.
“We feel the ruling is incorrect,” said Prashant Bhushan. “We were not seeking to rescind the deal, we only sought a probe. The judges have just accepted what the government said lock, stock and barrel without dealing with our concerns. We will file a review of this ruling.”
The opposition Congress party has said it will aim to keep the pressure on the government and continue to press for a parliamentary probe.
The contest for next year’s elections appears to be tightening with the ruling BJP failing to win a mandate in 5 recent state elections. Indians have become increasingly frustrated with the economic situation in the country.
Former French President Francois Hollande, who approved the deal when he was in office, created a stir in September when he revealed that the Narendra Modi government in New Delhi forced the French firm Dassault Aviation to choose Ambani for the deal.
“We had no choice. We took the partner that was given to us,” Hollande was quoted as saying in an explosive interview to French investigative news service, Mediapart.
Modi’s BJP and French firm Dassault denied the allegations.
Meanwhile, caught in a political storm over the Rafale fighter aircraft deal, Ambani’s Reliance sent defamation notices amounting to millions of dollars to several Indian opposition politicians and media outlets, including leading private broadcaster, NDTV.