A day before voting for the first phase of the Lok Sabha polls, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP have received a major jolt from the Supreme Court. The apex court, on Wednesday, decided that leaked confidential documents suggesting the PMO’s interference in negotiations on the Rafale deal, can be relied upon while adjudicating on a bunch of petitions that have sought a review of the court’s verdict of December 14 last year which had rejected prayers for an investigation into the fighter jet deal.
The apex court bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and comprising Justices SK Kaul and KM Joseph, was unanimous in its verdict that purportedly leaked confidential documents can be relied upon while adjudicating on the Rafale review petitions. The top court will now fix a date for commencement of hearing on merit the batch of review petitions, filed by former Union ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie, advocates Prashant Bhushan, ML Sharma and Vineet Dhanda.
Justice Joseph, who delivered a separate but concurring judgment, also dismissed the Centre's stand that the documents relied upon by the petitioners were "privileged" and hence could not be allowed to be part of the proceedings.
The Supreme Court had, on March 14, reserved its order on examining the documents submitted by the petitioners who sought a review of the court’s December 14 verdict on the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets. Attorney General KK Venugopal had argued that these documents are “privileged” and cannot be produced in court without permission, while the petitioners had argued that national security cannot be stated as a reason to brush aside documentary evidence that prima facie establishes a corrupt practice.
Venugopal had told the court that the documents relied upon by the petitioners in their review pleas were protected under the Official Secrets Act and that these were classified and cannot be put in the public domain.
The proceedings in the case had also seen a series of flip-flops by the Attorney General. At the initial stage of arguments on whether the court should admit the review petitions or not, Venugopal had stunned everyone by claiming that the documents relied upon by the petitioners were part of a file that “had been stolen from the defence ministry”. The Attorney General had, then, gone on to claim that an FIR was proposed to be filed against the petitioners – Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and Prashant Bhushan - as well as against The Hindu newspaper and ANI news agency on grounds of theft of the said document.
Venugopal’s claim had triggered a massive backlash by the Opposition since no one in the government, including defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, had at the time claimed that the documents had been stolen even though a full debate on the contents of the said papers had happened in Parliament during its budget session in February-March. Within 48 hours of making the bizarre claim, Venugopal made a U-turn in an interview to a news agency asserting that what he meant to tell the Supreme Court was that the documents submitted by the petitioners were photocopies of a leaked confidential file and that the Opposition was “wholly incorrect” in saying that the Attorney General had used the term stolen.
The proceedings had also seen the bench, Justice Joseph in particular, rigorously question Venugopal on why the review petitions, inclusive of the confidential documents, should not be admitted by the court in light of the revelations that had come in the public domain since the top court’s verdict of December 14 last year which had rejected prayers for a court-monitored SIT probe into the Rafale deal.