An expose by French news portal mediapart.fr alleging kickbacks to the tune of 1.1 million Euros by Rafale manufacturer Dassault Aviation to an Indian defence company has, once again, encouraged the Congress party to demand an investigation into questions of financial impropriety in the controversial fighter jet deal.
The alleged lack of transparency in various aspects of the Rafale deal, particularly the price at which the Indian government finally agreed to buy the jets and the choice of an Anil Ambani-led Reliance group company as Dassault’s offset partner in India, had led Congress leader Rahul Gandhi to launch a sustained attack against the Narendra Modi government in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The government has maintained all along that allegations of graft in the deal are unfounded. The Supreme Court too had upheld the Centre's contention and refused to order an inquiry into the different aspects of the deal.
Though the Mediapart report, first in a three-part investigative series that went online on April 4, doesn’t yet make any comments about Anil Ambani’s company, the claim that kickbacks worth 1.1 million Euros were paid by Dassault Aviation has helped Congress cry vindication of its stand. On Monday, Congress media cell chief Randeep Singh Surjewala told reporters that the “allegations of causing loss to the exchequer, bribery and payment of commission in India’s biggest defence deal once again stare in the face of the Modi government”.
Surjewala quoted excerpts from the Mediapart report, titled “Sale of French Rafale jet fighters to India: how a state scandal was buried”, claiming that an investigation conducted by the French anti-corruption agency – Agence Française Anticorruption (AFA) – has revealed that after signing the deal in 2016, Dassault paid 1.1 million Euros to an Indian company called Defsys solutions. The amount paid to Defsys, which the report says is a company owned by “the Gupta family, whose members have acted as middlemen in the aeronautical and defence industries for three generations”, was shown by Dassault under the head “gifts to clients”.
According to the Mediapart report, on March 30, 2017, Dassault explained to the AFA that the “gift” was actually a payment made to Defsys for manufacture of 50 Rafale models. However, the AFA reportedly posed three questions to Dassault – why had the Rafale manufacturer asked Defsys to make models of its own aircraft priced at 20000 Euros a piece, why this expenditure was entered under the category of “gift to client” and finally, were these models ever made? Dassault, according to Mediapart, was unable to provide the AFA with a “single document showing that these models existed and were delivered”.
The Mediapart report states: “As they combed through the 2017 accounts (of Dassault) the AFA inspectors raised an eyebrow when they came across an item of expenditure costing 508,925 Euros and entered under the heading “gifts to clients”. This amount “seemed disproportionate in relation to all the other entries” under the same heading… To justify this larger than usual “gift” Dassault supplied the AFA with a proforma invoice dated March 30th 2017 which was supplied by an Indian company called Defsys Solutions. This invoice, which related to 50% of the total order (€1,017,850), was for the manufacture of 50 models of the Rafale C, with a price per unit of €20,357.”
About the Defsys group’s Indian owners, the Mediapart report states: “In January 2019 the Indian media – first Cobrapost and then the Economic Times – revealed that one family member, Sushen Gupta, operated as an agent for Dassault, had worked on the Rafale contract and had allegedly obtained confidential documents from India’s Ministry of Defence.” The report goes on to say, “By coincidence, it was this middleman who sent the 1 million Euro invoice for the jet fighter models to Dassault six months after the September 2016 signing of the Rafale deal by the French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his Indian counterpart Manohar Parrikar… In March 2019, Sushen Gupta was arrested by agents from the Enforcement Directorate… He was later freed on bail facing charges of money laundering over the so-called ‘Choppergate’ corruption scandal involving the sale of helicopters to India by the Italian-British group AgustaWestland.”
On the basis of the revelations, Surjewala questioned whether “a full and independent investigation into India’s biggest defence deal to find out as to how much bribery and commission in reality, if any, was paid and to whom in the Indian government was not required now?” The Congress chief spokesperson added that when similar allegations of kickbacks and impropriety were made public with regard to the AgustaWestland chopper deal during the UPA regime, then defence minister AK Antony had followed the standard procedure by cancelling the deal and ordering an investigation. “Should the same procedure not be followed now with regard to Rafale… the Prime Minister must clarify on this,” Surjewala said. He added, “Any evidence of middleman or commission or bribery has serious penal consequences of banning of the supplier defence company, cancellation of contract, registration of FIR and imposition of heavy financial penalties on the defence supplier company.”