New Delhi: Rahul Gandhi has sought to link the haemorrhaging of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) with alleged attempts of the Narendra Modi government to establish the failed businessman, Anil Ambani, as the next Howard Hughes of India. If there is any truth in the allegation, it would have to await an inquiry by a post-Modi government: Which could very well happen this year or equally get deferred to a time in the future. Conspiracies, especially those related to crony capitalism and fraud, are never easy to prove. But even separately, the financial destruction of HAL and the dodgy Anil Ambani-Dassault Rafale deal demand the most invasive and thorough public and prosecutorial scrutiny. The Supreme Court is not the ideal venue for this.

The Anil Ambani-Rafale deal is scandalous for per unit cost of the warplane which has suffered inflation by more than Rs 1000 crore from the UPA era to the present NDA one. Initial negotiations for 126 aircraft were inexplicably cut to a contract for thirty-six in which Anil Ambani’s fledgling company, with zero experience in aircraft manufacture, much less warplane production, was astonishingly made a partner with Dassault. The French president at the time of the deal spoke in a media interview of pressure from the Indian government to include Anil Ambani in the contract. Subsequently, both Dassault and the French government denied this to be the case though few were convinced. Cover-ups rarely work.

Since Rahul Gandhi has spearheaded the Rafale campaign, the Narendra Modi government and its cheerleaders have tried to smear him as “anti-national”. The Indian Air Force chief, having nothing better to do, has stoutly defended the deal as necessary and timely. He has further argued bizarrely that thirty-six Rafale jets constitute a “game-changer” in war scenarios with Pakistan and China. Even Hermann Goring, who notoriously inflated Luftwaffe capabilities, would baulk from such claims. When questions were asked how thirty-six aircraft could defend Indian skies more optimally than the 126 aircraft of the original negotiations based on IAF requirement, the Modi government quickly intimated initiatives to acquire a further ninety aircraft.

What stuck in the throat, however, was the extra payout of Rs 1000 crore-plus per aircraft under the Anil Ambani-Rafale deal. When cost details were demanded to be made public, the government recoiled in terror. Air force officers and subsequently civilian functionaries deemed cost details as top secret (they forgot to add ultra) whose revelation would forearm adversaries. Poppycock. Warplane capabilities are rarely hidden in commercial transactions and it is a thousand to one that Pakistan and China are clueless about the Rafale platform. The entire scandal pivots on the price escalation. Nothing less than a parliamentary inquiry will settle the controversy which, naturally, the Narendra Modi government cannot possibly approve.

In a spirited bid to justify Anil Ambani’s last-minute inclusion in the deal, the government has been slandering Hindustan Aeronautics. It might be argued that the Modi regime itself has provided the link between HAL and Anil Ambani and it didn’t really need Rahul Gandhi to make the point. Now it transpires that HAL, which has been paying handsome dividends to the government running into thousands of crores, has to borrow to pay salaries and meet running expenses. How has this come to pass? HAL has not been paid for products and services delivered to the Indian Air Force. By end-2018, IAF dues to Hindustan Aeronautics totalled a staggering Rs 15,700 crore. The last payment of Rs 2000 crore received from the air force was in September 2017. Why hasn’t HAL been paid in full? HAL finances were already precarious with two buybacks in the past three years in which the Narendra Modi government earned nearly Rs 6400 crore. The IAF’s inability or unwillingness to pay for HAL equipment and services has been the proverbial last nail in the coffin. After Rahul Gandhi tore into the defence minister, Nirmala Sitaraman, concerning the parlous state of HAL, a meeting of HAL stakeholders and customers was called. But why was Hindustan Aeronautics, which has been rated “excellent” by the government, bled in the first place? Perhaps a post-Modi era would draw some answers.

Defence production possibly is the only sector of the national economy where principles of market economics have perhaps to be forgone in places. A country’s defence cannot be sustained by imports in the long run. High cost is a factor for a poor country like India plus unreliability and uncertainties of emergency acquisitions during war or threats of war. The Indian subcontinent is a nuclearized environment with three nuclear power states sharing borders of which portions are disputed, porous and infiltration-prone. A war between India, Pakistan and China could no longer be kept below the nuclear threshold. Even so, India cannot neglect optimal conventional war preparedness. HAL’s perverse destruction and dodgy defence deals have struck a blow to preparedness.