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Could Rafale be Modi’s Waterloo?

S.M. Hali

25th Nov, 2021. 04:00 pm

Photo: Dassault Aviation


In a week where India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, scathingly known as the “Butcher of Gujarat”, was forced to backtrack and repeal controversial farm laws and disgraced IAF pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan was awarded a gallantry award for falsely claiming to have shot down a PAF F-16, fresh evidence of the Indian Prime Minister’s involvement in the scandal tainted acquisition of Rafale fighter jets has emerged.

Sleaze and corruption have been the hallmark of Indian defence deals. Former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was indicted, tried and found guilty of being involved in the 1980s-90s’ Bofors 155 mm field howitzer guns scandal. The 2001 whistleblower Tehelka sting operation “Westend” exposed murky defence deals and rocked India and the world, the wrongdoers of which have been finally punished in 2021. The 2013 Augusta Westland VVIP helicopters bribery scandal is included in the few examples in the long list of corruption cases in weapons acquisitions by Indian politicians and defence planners.

The Rafale scandal in India relates to the purchase of 36 multirole fighter aircraft for a price estimated at €7.87 ($8.8) billion by the Defence Ministry of India from France’s Dassault Aviation. It was alleged that Narendra Modi himself and his poster boy Anil Ambani were personally involved in swinging the deal during Modi’s visit to France in 2015.  In December 2018, Indian Supreme Court dismissed the allegations but in June 2021 a French judge was appointed to lead a judicial investigation into alleged corruption and favouritism in the deal. Now, fresh allegations of forged invoices and a middleman have emerged in this scandal involving India’s multi-billion-dollar purchase of Rafale fighter jets from France.

Investigative journalists working for the French Mediapart online news portal claim the deal for 36 aircraft involved offshore companies, dubious contracts and false invoices. The investigative scoop reveals that kickbacks were paid to middleman Sushen Gupta to help secure the deal. Mediapart has gone to the extent of publishing images of invoices depicting the bribery scandal.

The exposé by Mediapart reveals that detectives from India’s federal police force, the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI), and colleagues from the Enforcement Directorate (ED), which fights money laundering, have had proof since October 2018 that French aviation firm Dassault paid at least 7.5 million euros (US$8.5 million) in secret commissions to Gupta.

Mediapart alleged that the payments were made from 2002 to 2012 when the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led NDA (National Democratic Alliance) and later the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) were in power.

The sleuths discovered that Gupta had also acted as an intermediary for Dassault Aviation over the Rafale deal. His Mauritian company, Interstellar Technologies, received at least 7.5 million euros from the French aviation firm between 2007 and 2012, thanks to IT contracts that were clearly overbilled, and from which most of the money was discreetly sent to Mauritius using a system of alleged false invoices, the allegations say.

France, on its part had opened a criminal investigation on June 14, headed by an independent judge to probe into the participation of former French president Francois Hollande, who was in office when the deal was signed, and current President Emmanuel Macron, who was economy and finance minister, as well as then-Defense Minister, now Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Mediapart said also that the probe would focus on the alleged role of wealthy Indian businessman Anil Ambani, Chairman and owner of conglomerate Reliance Group and known to be personally close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The news portal claims Ambani is at the heart of the allegations surrounding the jets deal.

Ironically, in February 2019, following the failed Indian Air Force surgical strike in Balakot, Pakistan Air Force gave a bloody nose to its adversary. During the border skirmishes with the Chinese forces in the Ladakh region, Indian forces got badly mauled. In the aftermath of the two debacles faced by India, Modi had lamented that if his air force had received the Rafales earlier, it would have been a different story. Now thirty of the fighters have been delivered, with the rest due by April but the revelation of the fresh evidence in the Rafale deal scandal has caused a political storm in India, where Modi’s government portrays itself as “clean.” The latest allegations have added impetus to attacks by the opposition who accuse the government of a cover-up because so far the Narendra Modi government is not very keen on ordering a probe into this deal.

It is no coincidence that Sushen Gupta, the middleman being named, was already on the investigator’s radar over the previously mentioned 2013 AgustaWestland scam, in which bribes were allegedly paid to middlemen, perhaps even politicians.

The sordid Rafale affair, which has become a melting pot of corruption, kickbacks and collusion and resurfaced again, allegedly also involved Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa, then Indian Air Force (IAF) chief in overseeing the controversial and tainted project.

The revelation in the murky Rafale affair, along with a dwindling economy and mishandling of COVID-19 protocols, may seriously dent the chances of BJP’s success in the Uttar Pradesh assembly polls due in February and March 2022, which could test Modi’s popularity for the 2024 parliament elections.



The writer is a former Group Captain PAF and an author.


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