A major scandal over a 2015 Indian deal to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets reached a peak over the weekend following Hollande’s comments that France had no say in choosing its Indian commercial partner in the deal.
India’s opposition Congress party has accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of giving Anil Ambani, a billionaire businessman with close links to the ruling BJP party, preferential treatment to the detriment of state-run HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) company.
Indian government officials say Dassault, the French manufacturer of the Rafale, had freely chosen their Indian commercial partner despite the fact that Ambani’s company, Reliance, lacked any experience in the field of aviation.
But in an interview with French investigative website Mediapart last week, Hollande – who signed the India-France inter-governmental agreement in 2015 – appeared to refute New Delhi’s version of the deal.
“We did not have a say in that,” said Hollande. “It was the Indian government that proposed this service group (Reliance), and Dassault who negotiated with Ambani. We did not have a choice, we took the interlocutor who was given to us.”
Hollande’s comments sparked fears that they would damage bilateral ties between India and France. “I find these remarks made overseas, which concern important international relations between France and India, do not help anyone and above all do not help France,” said Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, a junior foreign minister, in a Sunday interview with Radio J.
“Because one is no longer in office, causing damage to a strategic partnership between India and France by making remarks that clearly cause controversy in India is really not appropriate,” he added.
Saurav Jha, editor-in-chief of the Delhi Defence Review, noted that Hollande’s latest comments had “set the cat among the pigeons”.
“As far as official policy is concerned, it was only Dassault who’ll get to choose the offset partner and that is why both the governments here in Delhi and in Paris have denied having any say in that,” Jha told FRANCE 24. “Hollande’s remarks have definitely created a stir, there’s no doubt about that.”
Offset clauses stipulate conditions on suppliers to make them spend a portion of the contract in a certain way. The Rafale deal stipulates that Dassault had to ensure that 50 percent of the estimated $8.7 billion price it was earning would be invested in the Indian defence industry.
India stands firm
India’s main opposition party on Monday called for a joint parliamentary committee to investigate the deal as well as public demonstrations to protest the agreement.
But Modi’s government has vowed to stand firm on the deal. “These jets will come to India. They will enhance the combat ability of the Indian Air Force,” Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told the Indian news agency, ANI.
India’s air force says it needs new combat jets to face a perceived twin threat from China and Pakistan.
The Rafale planes were picked from a field that included Lockheed Martin’s F-16, Saab’s Gripen, the Eurofighter Typhoon, Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the Russian MiG-35.