A French judge has been appointed to head a probe into suspected “corruption and favouritism” in the ₹59,000 crore Rafale Fighter Jet deal with India for 36 fighter jets, according to a report in a French online journal, Mediapart.
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“The highly sensitive probe into the inter-governmental deal signed in 2016 was formally opened on June 14,” Mediapart said. It said the development was confirmed by the financial crimes branch of the French public prosecution services on Friday.
The French website Mediapart carried a series of reports on alleged irregularities in the Rafale deal in April 2021.
In one of those reports, Mediapart claimed that the former head of the financial crimes branch of France’s public prosecution services, Eliane Houlette, shelved an investigation into alleged evidence of corruption in the Rafale Fighter Jet deal despite the objection of colleagues. It said Houlette justified her decision to shelve the investigations as preserving “the interests of France, the workings of institutions.”
“Now, her successor as head of the PNF, Jean-François Bohnert, has decided to support the opening of a probe, after the complaint was updated with details from Mediapart’s recent series of investigations,” Mediapart’s latest report said.
The criminal investigation, Mediapart said, will “examine questions surrounding the actions” of former French president François Hollande, who was in office when the Rafale deal was inked, current French president Emmanuel Macron, who was at the time Hollande’s economy and finance minister, and foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who was then holding the defence portfolio.
India ordered the Rafale Fighter Jets in September 2016 as an emergency purchase through a government-to-government deal. The deal became controversial, with the Opposition, led by the Congress, claiming that the price at which India is buying Rafale aircraft now is ₹1,670 crore for each, three times the initial bid of ₹526 crore by the company when the UPA was trying to buy the aircraft. It has also claimed the previous deal included a technology transfer agreement with HAL.
The BJP-led NDA Govt has not disclosed details of the price, but the UPA deal, struck in 2012, was not a viable one, former defence minister Manohar Parrikar has previously said, implying that it would have never been closed and that, therefore, any comparison is moot. Indeed, the UPA was not able to close the deal till 2014, largely over discussions related to pricing of items not included in the initial bid.
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has said that it cannot disclose the details of the price on two counts: a confidentiality agreement with France, and the strategic reason of not showing its hand to India’s enemies; however, it said that the current deal also includes customised weaponry.
The Supreme Court heard a public interest case on the deal and in November 2019, said it saw nothing wrong in it. In a February 2019 report, the government’s auditor, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India audited the deal and said India had not overpaid for the Rafale Fighter jets.