What are the crucial journalistic takeaways from the two in-depth reports by N. Ram on L’Affaire Rafale, “Modi’s decision to buy 36 Rafales shot the price of each jet up by 41%” (January 18, 2019) and “Defence Ministry protested against PMO undermining Rafale negotiations” (February 8, 2019)? When this newspaper broke the Bofors story, there were questions posed to the Congress government and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. But in the case of the Rafale stories, some readers, instead of questioning the government and the Prime Minister, are questioning journalists and journalism.
First, let’s understand the context in which these stories were published. The ruling government had submitted a note to the Supreme Court that said the negotiations were conducted only by the seven-member team led by the Deputy Chief of Air Staff. There was no mention of the involvement of the Prime Minister’s Office. This was repeated by the Defence Minister in the Lok Sabha on January 4, 2019. The major objection to Mr. Ram’s first story was that the report did not say anything new and was therefore not an exclusive one. The crucial finding of that report was that it firmly established that the cost of each aircraft went up by 41% because of distributing ‘non-recurring’ costs attributed to the ‘design and development’ of 13 India-Specific Enhancements over 36 instead of 126 aircraft. The report also established that the government did not leverage the counter offer from the Eurofighter Typhoon consortium.
One of the contributors to this newspaper, K.R.A. Narasiah, took strong exception to the February 8th report, which showed how parallel negotiations by the Prime Minister’s Office weakened the Indian negotiating team’s position. He wrote: “It is a pity that N. Ram, a seasoned and respected journalist, shot from the hip in his anxiety to discredit the Modi government in the Rafale deal. In fact, conveniently omitting the portion of the note by the Defence Minister, the entire report gives a twisted meaning and has brought down the reputation of The Hindu by several notches.”
It is important to recognise that the note from the Defence Minister does not contradict the arguments of The Hindu’s story but, in an oblique manner, validates it.
Let’s also look at the dates to understand the sequence of events. On November 24, 2015, Deputy Secretary S.K. Sharma put out a note registering protest against the parallel negotiation by the Prime Minister’s Office. On December 1, the then Defence Secretary, G. Mohan Kumar, made this official notation in his own hand: “RM may pl. see. It is desirable that such discussions be avoided by the PMO as it undermines our negotiating position seriously.” To this, then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar responded on January 19, 2016: “It appears PMO and French President office are monitoring the progress of the issue which was an outcome of the summit meeting. Para 5 appears to be an over reaction. Defence secretary (G. Mohan Kumar) may resolve the matter in consultation with principal secretary to PM.”
Dribs and drabs
In a different report, “Four reasons why the attacks on The Hindu’s Rafale story are shallow and self-implicating” (http://bit.ly/RafaleAnalysis), Varghese K. George explains the salient features of serious and ongoing investigative reportage. He explains how no single report on a topic is the last word on it and that investigative stories come in dribs and drabs. Mr. Parrikar was careful in his note and used the word “appears” only with reference to Para 5. Further, he did not reject the fears of his bureaucratic colleagues when it came to Para 4, which read: “The discussions between Diplomatic Adviser to the French Defence Minister and Joint Secretary to PM tantamount to parallel negotiation.”
The stories gain importance because they draw our attention to the fact that both the Supreme Court and Parliament have been deliberately misled. N. Ram’s relentless journalism shows how our systems are not transparent and lack accountability. It has helped to call out the deliberate lies and the weakening of our legal institutions governed by the growth of the jurisprudence of the “sealed cover”.