Why MJ Akbar’s defence of Rafale is less than convincing: Even he wouldn't rule out involvement of ‘A’ or ‘M’ Bhai

By Uttam Sengupta*
I have been an unabashed admirer of MJ Akbar as journalist, editor and writer. For reasons unknown to me, for some time I was also considered one of his several blue-eyed boys. He did give me the break I needed to get out of Ranchi, he persuaded me to shift to Patna and allowed me to cover Nepal. Although MJ was only a few years older to us, we looked up to him with awe.
He was of course a brilliant reporter and writer and we devoured everything that he wrote. Each one of us wished we could write as well as he did and it was with both envy and pride that we pored over what he wrote, including a delightful one on the Titanic clash between chess champions Bobby Fischer and Karpov. He had a sense of history that we didn’t have and of course we didn’t have half his talent and energy. He travelled, wrote books, drank like a fish, could dance through the night and put much younger men to shame and he somehow still found time to read voraciously. And his sense of history was awesome.
When Rajiv Gandhi became the Prime Minister, never mind whether Tavleen Singh introduced MJ to the then PM or not, MJ like the majority of the people was smitten. When the controversy over Bofors surfaced, he scoffed at the scandal. “You think Prime Minister of India would compromise his position for 64 Crore Rupees, for god’s sake? Come with me to a mandi in Meerut and I will show you Rs 64 Crore in half a day,” he had told some of us.
Even more remarkably, long before Bofors surfaced, in June1986 he had said something that seared into my head. He felt sorry for both Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi, he had said. “Because CIA will not allow an independent Prime minister to function in the subcontinent. Their Governments will either be toppled or they will be assassinated.”
But then MJ, now a Union Minister of State for External Affairs, has come a long way and sees things differently. His writing had become listless and we slowly stopped waiting for his columns as we did earlier. Politics took a toll, we reflected. But when I saw his column in the Sunday Times of India ("Cut out the nonsense, there is no uncle Quatrocchi in the Rafale deal")  this morning, I read it with interest, partly because I have been following the Rafale controversy and have read almost everything that has been written so far on the subject. My pulse quickened as I anticipated MJ coming up with a fresh twist and some new information.
Uttam Sengupta
Before I explain why I was disappointed, let me summarise what MJ wrote. He begins by saying that common sense is the best antidote to nonsense and then picks on a tweet by Rahul Gandhi in which the Congress President had claimed that the Rafale deal had benefitted one particular industrialist to the tune of Rs 45,000 crore. Since the entire deal is worth Rs 58,000 crore, common sense, he suggests, defies why a vendor would be willing to give up so much to an industrialist.
MJ then moves to the pricing of a Rafale jet fighter and repeats the arguments offered earlier by Arun Jaitley. The price of Rs 538 or Rs 570 crore bandied around by Rahul Gandhi and the Congress, he says, was for the bare aircraft and with the escalation clause, weapons and accessories would have cost a whopping Rs 2023 crore per aircraft if the specifications accepted by the UPA were to be followed.
The third point he makes is that since 50% of the total value was to be ploughed back to India, the offset clause is for Rs 30,000 crore at best to be invested in India by Dassault and among 72 indian vendors. Therefore, it is preposterous to suggest that one industrialist has benefitted by Rs 45,000 crore. He also mentions that the Indian Government has no role in the distribution of this business in India.
Finally, he says that even Congress leaders admit ‘in private’ that no bribe has been paid. Hence there is no ‘Uncle Quatrocchi’ in the deal.
There is really nothing that is new in what MJ writes. This has been the Government of India’s defence from the beginning. It is of course significant that MJ did not pick on RG’s speech on the subject in the Lok Sabha (what happened by the way to the breach of privilege motion that BJP threatened to move against RG for misleading the House?) but latched on to a tweet.
But as a citizen, I would have liked to have answers to the following questions.
  • Why did the Prime Minister unilaterally scrap the earlier deal that even his Government negotiated with Dassault till March, 2015? Was it because of the high price as MJ and Arun Jaitley hint at?
  • Why and how did Prime Minister Narendra Modi decide that the Indian Air Force, which wanted 126 Rafale jets in 2008, needed only 36 Rafale jets in 2015-16? 
  • Why was Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) deprived of the status of Dassault’s offset partner and thus robbed of an opportunity to hone its indigenous capabilities?
  • Finally, MJ does not mention that the clause that foreign vendors need not have Government of India’s approval for choosing its offset partners was inserted in 2015, after PM Modi’s announcement of the new Rafale deal in Paris in April that year. Why was it put there? 
  • MoS ( Defence) Subhash Bhamre had informed Parliament in November 2016 that the price of each aircraft would come to Rs 670 Crore along with all accessories. Was he lying?
Finally, a puzzle. If everything is hunky dory with Rafale and the Modi government has nothing to hide (indeed everyone from Jaitley to MJ to Nirmala Sitharaman and Amit Shah have been busy quoting figures), why run away from a debate on Rafale in Parliament? Why raise the bogey of national security when union ministers are freely discussing figures on the media?
MJ is quite possibly right. There is no ‘uncle Quatrocchi’ in Rafale deal. But even he surely would not rule out the involvement of ‘A’ or ‘M’ Bhai?
I still believe MJ’s foray into politics has been journalism’s loss. I also wonder at times what could politics have given him that journalism didn’t? Nobody asked me to write this piece. But why do I have this lurking suspicion that MJ’s column in STOI is a command performance, that his ‘Editor’ bade him to write this defence?
---
*Senior journalist. Source: Uttam Sengupta's Facebook timeline

Comments

veerar said…
You mean titanic clash between Bobby Fischer and BORIS SPASSKY?