To Winston Churchill is attributed the stinging retort: "If you stop telling lies about me, I'll stop telling the truth about you."
That hoary old jibe comes to mind as I listen to Jaitley et. al. lathering themselves into righteous indignation over the questions the opposition and several sections of the media have been posing to him, and to Raksha Mantri Nirmala Sitharaman and their cohort, about Modi having unilaterally slashed the number of Rafale fighter aircraft to be purchased from 126 to 36, while the price per aircraft soared from about 715 crores to perhaps over 1600 crores.
When the deal was initially concluded about ten months ago, a smug, self-satisfied Sitharaman openly stated to the media that not only was the aircraft cheaper than the price earlier negotiated by the Congress-UPA, she publicly instructed her Defence Secretary to furnish the details. It was only much later that she realized (or claimed to have realized) that there was a secrecy clause that prevented her from letting the great unwashed public, who were paying for the deal, know how much of their money was being shelled out. Had her secretary acted on her instructions, there might perhaps have been no room for the opposition to ferret out the details. But it was when the government shied away from revealing even the broad lines of the money being paid out and why, and wrapping themselves in the noble cloak of national security to avoid searching scrutiny, that the unanswered questions came tumbling out. The opposition leadership could have been taken into confidence if, in fact, national security were being jeopardized by revealing the bang we were getting for our buck. Even this was not done.
Jaitley made his reputation within the BJP (if not among the general public as he has never been elected to the Lok Sabha and failed miserably the only time he contested) - Jaitley made his name, as I was saying, within his party circles by pursuing the Bofors issue as VP Singh's Additional Solicitor General. The embarrassing lapses in the letters rogatory he filed notwithstanding, and notwithstanding his repeatedly failing over three decades to secure a substantive court decree in any court in endorsement of his many calumnies, he continues to make political hay out of peddling untruths about Bofors with nary a thought for national security when it comes to the 155mm gun that kept the Pakistanis at bay at Kargil.
The fact is that the Bofors gun was the very best in its class. Had we not had at least a few of them, there is no telling what national disaster might not have been visited upon our nation in 1999. No other gun had the capacity to fire at the acute angle our artillery had to fire at to winkle out and destroy the enemy on the heights above Kargil. I have just visited the Kargil War Memorial. Jaitley notwithstanding, the Bofors gun is proudly displayed on the lawns of the Memorial. So many of the young men who toiled up Tololing and Tiger Hill are alive and well today because, as they clambered up the steep mountainside under intense enemy fire, the trusty Bofors gun was there to protect them, give them covering fire and smash enemy emplacements to smithereens at the highest reaches of the towering mountains.
Yet, because the vengeful depredations of Jaitley & Co led to the stupid, vain and anti-national cancellation of much of the contract, in the midst of the Kargil war, we had to run humiliatingly to South Africa to get the ammunition required to use the guns with such deadly effect. If the Rajiv deal had been allowed to work out, we would have had the technology to manufacture the gun ourselves. Most importantly, the unique capacity of the Bofors gun alone to "shoot and scoot" rendered completely impotent the US-supplied "heat-seeking radar" that would have otherwise permitted the Pakistanis to take out any other make of 155mm within seconds of the first shell being fired.
And was there any rectitude, any grace, any restitution in the action taken by the NDA government when it won the autumn 1999 election? None. Instead, in what can only be described as a vicious slandering of a Prime Minster assassinated brutally in the line of duty, Rajiv Gandhi's name was included in the list of accused filed in the courts almost as soon as the government had won. It was obliged to add to Rajiv Gandhi's name the words "not sent up for trial" because Indian law, as that great lawyer Jaitley knows only too well, does not permit a dead man to be tried. But like the vultures they were, they swept on carrion. I said as much on the floor of the House. Advani complained but my words remain on the records of the Lok Sabha.
My generation remembers VP Singh pulling a paper out of his pocket at election rally after election rally, proclaiming that he had written on it the Swiss bank account number that would prove Rajiv had his hand in the till. Between Rajiv's defeat in 1989 and his spouse pulling together the UPA rainbow coalition in 2004, as many as eight of the intervening 13 years saw in power the forces that had brought down Rajiv Gandhi. Although egged on by our native Pink Panther, Shri Arun Jaitley, they could not persuade any court to give a single finding against that innocent man. Nothing has been proved against the man they slandered and the vital national security asset he obtained - the Bofors gun - at the cheapest-possible global price, with ten extra guns thrown in for free.
This is the disgraced lot that now shelters its sins behind the claim of "national security" secrets. Public money cannot be squandered in thousands upon thousands of crores without the rendering of accounts to the nation. Which is why we are seeing the dying days of the Modi regime overshadowed by unanswered questions about how a Prime Minister can, without securing the assent of his cabinet committee on security, let alone the cabinet as a whole, and without the benefit of instant on-hand advice from the armed forces, and with the Raksha Mantri blissfully ignorant of what is happening, suddenly decide while on a visit to Paris that the deal that had been all but tied up by the predecessor government would be scrapped and replaced by a government-to-government deal of which the Indian government as a whole had not the least inkling. And what, pray, was a businessman with a huge debt on his head and no known experience of fighter aircraft manufacture, but destined to become Dassualt's principal Indian partner, doing aboard our equivalent of Air Force One when not even the air force chief was on board?
The government may have its explanations. The Raksha Mantri seemed about a year ago more than ready to spill the information. Then she clamped down - or was made to clamp down. Just as the lies they told about Bofors were eventually exposed, the truth about Rafale will also be exposed.
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is a senior Congress leader and former MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)
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