The Supreme Court’s verdict in the Rafale case seeking a review of the fighter jet deal is out. The court rightly found that there was no corruption involved in the deal. However, the diplomatic and economic damage is real and will last for a while.
For starters nobody was spared — foreign heads of state were misrepresented or slandered, and investors will definitely worry about the kind of shameless politicisation of a deal that was possibly one of the more transparent ones in recent history. Instead of ululating over the victory of those of us who said it was legit, we should now return to introspection and fix everything that has gone wrong
To be clear, while the Rafale deal was clean, there was much that could have been used to grill the Air Force with. For example, the way the Air Force diverted a large quantity light fighter replacement contest to a heavy fighter, and chose an unaffordable fighter that could only be procured in limited numbers was a blunder. However, blunders and misjudgement are not crimes.
What the corruption allegations have done is given a halo of invincibility. The verdict is a much-needed boost that will strengthen the government’s hands in future purchases. Contrast this with Bofors — the scandal that dealt a body blow to defence modernisation in the 1980s. The question is will the Rafale acquittal lead to a course correction and economically-feasible purchasing, or will it lead to hubris and binge spending on weapons we can't afford?
The trajectory is hard to predict, but here are some of the parties who were negatively affected by the allegations, who will think long and hard. First, the French government, which had made it clear from the beginning that the Rafales would be rigged for nuclear delivery. They did this in line with their commitment to the special relationship with India and took great political risks doing so. Their attempts at reaching out to the Indian Opposition, by no less than President Emmanuel Macron himself, only to be severely misrepresented by then Congress President Rahul Gandhi, would have left a bitter taste in the French mouth.
Second, Dassault Aviation and Reliance Defence, which got its work share fair and square, whose name was dragged through the mud. What was amazing was the sheer levels of half-truths and outright untruths, including forged/manipulated documents out in the media to peddle a political narrative. Clearly it won't do anything for business confidence if the press resorts to fake news, instead of genuine investigation.
What will be of relief to both the French and the business community will not just be the verdict, but also the refusal of the court to overstep its mandated authority. Perhaps, most importantly, the speed at which the hearings were completed and judgment delivered came as a pleasant surprise in a country prone to chronic case pendency and judicial delays.
In a sense, then, at least some positive has come of this entire sordid episode. Foreign vendors, governments and local industry, who regularly and bitterly complain that it is the single-biggest risk to be factored into their bottom lines, can now look upon this judgment as boosting their confidence in dealing with the Indian defence market.
However, the fact remains that one salutary judgment alone will not change the impression of India's defence market being an endemic cesspit of high volatility and whimsical personality-driven decision-making. Till that is sorted out, expect to see more such scandals — real or manufactured — erupt.Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is a defence economist and senior fellow at Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. Twitter: @iyervval. Views are personal.