NEW DELHI: Having learnt from UPA’s follies in defence deals, which marred its image due to bribery scandals, the BJP-led NDA government is taking care before inking its first major acquisition deal to procure 36 Rafale warplanes with France.
A highly-placed source said that the Ministry of Defence before going ahead with the much-awaited deal, is seeking a ‘no-objection’ from the investigating agencies probing arms lobbyist Sanjay Bhandari, whose name had figured in various defence deals during UPA government.
A top official claimed that during a series of raids at Bhandari’s office and residential premises in May, Income Tax and Enforcement Directorate investigators had seized several documents related to defence deals, including Mirage-2000 upgrade with French companies Dassault and Thales.
Dassault Aviation is the manufacturer of Rafale fighter jets. Leads generated from raids at Sanjay Bhandari’s premises gave key inputs on other lobbyists, who are now being scanned for swinging defence deals.
“We are simply verifying with the investigating agencies whether they have found any linkages of Bhandari with French firm manufacturing Rafale jets,” said a top source. Defence sources are apprehensive about Bhandari’s deep-rooted links with French defence firms.
It is learnt that investigating agencies are looking into Bhandari role in the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) Rs 10,947 crore project, finalised in 2011-12 for an upgrade of 51 Mirage-2000s with the help of French companies Dassault Aviation and Thales (weapons systems integrator). The CAG has criticised the high cost of upgrade the project.
Ministry officials involved in the acquisition process are also wary on going ahead with the deal until clearance from the all sections is availed. For now, price is not the only issue, which is delaying the much -hyped fighter jet deal.
“We have more or less agreed to the price. Such due diligence is required before finalising such a project,” said an MoD official.
Earlier, both sides were working on the price as India is targeting between `65,000-68,000 crore (8 billion Euros) for 36 Rafale fighter jets. However, on the other side, Dassault has quoted a whopping figure of nearly `90,000 crore (12 billion euros) for aircraft fitted with high-end weapons and radar systems.
In the absence of a mutually agreed price, the deal could not be inked during French President Francois Hollande’s visit to New Delhi for Republic Day. It only dashed hopes of the Indian Air Force (IAF), which is struggling to cope with its depleting fleet strength, and also caused embarrassment for New Delhi as no major announcement was made during meeting of the top political leadership of both countries.
While visiting France in April 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his decision to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets citing “operational necessity” of the IAF. Thirty-six nuclear-capable Rafale jets will come to India in fly-away condition fitted with weapon systems such as active electronically scanned phased array radar, high-end beyond-visual-range missiles and defensive weapon systems.
The depleting combat strength of the IAF has been a cause of concern as it is down to 34 fighter squadrons against its authorised strength of 42, based on certain projections in the next couple of years. IAF is getting four squadrons of Su-30, and subsequently indigenously-built Light Combat Aircraft Tejas is expected to fill its critical requirement. However, Tejas is still a long way to go.