Opposition protests in India over ‘corrupt’ French jets deal

New Delhi – A multi-billion dollar deal for 36 Rafale French fighter jets has got the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition in India at loggerheads.

Over 100 left-affiliated organisations will hold week-long protests across the country beginning Monday against what they allege is a “corrupt” deal favouring one of India’s richest industrialists.

Demonstrations and sit-ins, under the banner of ‘Jan Ekta Jan Adhikar Andolan’ (People’s Unity and Rights Movement), are being organised by left-backed outfits at state and district-levels to “raise awareness” about the “scam” from October 22-28.

As India gears up for what is expected to be a tightly-contested general election in a few months, the protests are seeking to highlight the alleged “wrongdoings” of the ruling right-wing government.

In 2016, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed an $8.7 billion deal for 36 Rafale fighter planes from France, the country’s first major acquisition of combat planes in two decades.

But it has since faced criticism from Indian opposition parties who allege severe wrongdoing in one of the country’s biggest defence deals.

Opposition parties like the Congress and the Left say India overpaid for the planes and are also questioning why a private firm with no experience in the defence sector, tycoon Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence Ltd, was awarded the contract instead of the state-run manufacturer, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited.

Former French President Francois Hollande, who approved the deal when he was in office, created a stir last month when he revealed that the Narendra Modi government in New Delhi forced Dassault Aviation to choose Ambani for the deal.

“We had no choice. We took the partner that was given to us,” Hollande was quoted as saying in an explosive interview to French investigative news service, Mediapart.

Modi’s BJP denied the allegations.

‘Massive scam’

On Monday, Hannan Mollah, organiser of the left-backed demonstrations and former lawmaker from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said the protests will help build public opinion.

“We are demanding a joint parliamentary committee to investigate the deal. This is a massive scam. Why has the number of planes decreased to 36 from the earlier planned 126? Why has the agreed price of the jets increased three-fold since 2014? Who is responsible for the final amount we are paying for the jets?” Mollah told Al Jazeera from Bengaluru city.

“The government rejected the state-run defence firm HAL and forced France to give the contract to a private player, a businessman friend of the government. This is a sweetheart deal,” he said.

Opposition will counter the government’s lies through protests at the grassroots level, the left leader said.

“We will not let the government run away, we are taking it to the people. Ninety percent of the people are unaware that public money has been looted, they have to be told. There is also a strange silence from the Indian media which is not holding the powers accountable,” Mollah said.

Several members of the BJP denied the charges, saying the opposition was undermining national security in their bid to target Modi.

“A lie repeated a hundred times cannot become the truth. The CAG [India’s official auditing agency], which will audit the deal, is already looking into it. They will file a report with the parliament. Let’s wait for the report,” Sudhanshu Mittal, spokesperson of the BJP party, told Al Jazeera.

Reliance Defence did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.

A week ago, India’s Supreme Court asked the government to furnish details of the controversial deal with France. The top court ordered the government to explain the “process” followed while inking the deal.

Last week, as the row escalated, a French aviation blog published details of a meeting between two trade unions at Dassault, the private company that began developing the jet in the mid-1980s.

The documents purportedly state it was “imperative and obligatory” for Dassault Aviation to accept Reliance Aerospace in order to obtain the contract.

“Mr Modi and his ministers have abused their authority as public servants by changing an almost completed deal. The final deal does away with the need for transfer of technology and also increased the prices of the jets. That is an abuse of power to benefit an indebted industrialist Ambani,” Prashant Bhushan, Supreme Court lawyer, told Al Jazeera.

“Dassault will be forced to say whatever they need to save the deal now. An impartial investigation will reveal everything. We intend to file a petition in the top court for an independent probe,” Bhushan added.

Defamation notices

Meanwhile, caught in a political storm over the Rafale fighter aircraft deal, Ambani’s Reliance sent defamation notices amounting to millions of dollars to several Indian opposition politicians and media outlets, including leading private broadcaster, NDTV.

The Reliance group has asked the media group to “cease and desist” from levelling allegations against it in connection with the Rafale deal.

In a statement emailed to Al Jazeera, NDTV said it will argue in court that it is “a heavy-handed attempt by Anil Ambani’s group to suppress the facts and prevent the media from doing its job – asking questions about a defence deal and seeking answers that are very much in public interest”.

Political heat over the controversial deal continues as leaders from different political outfits plan to gather in New Delhi on Wednesday to boost the opposition chorus for a probe.

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