While the opposition and the govt are not pulling their punches on the Rafale deal, both sides should exercise restraint so as not to hinder defence acquisition

The Rafale aircraft deal has hit the headlines once again. This time government and Congress president Rahul Gandhi have come out brandishing swords to outwit each other. The penultimate session of Parliament ahead of the general elections witnessed some high octane drama during the debate on Rs 53,000 crore fighter aircraft deal with French aviation major, Dassault. While the ruling alliance agreed to a debate on the Rafale deal in the hope of saving an otherwise washed-out winter session, the opposition used the opportunity gleefully to corner the treasury benches on the Rafale deal through an inter-government deal.

In the process, Rahul Gandhi tried to claim the position of principal opposition challenger to Modi who is seeking a second term. However, the Congress-led coalition forces appeared to lack the firepower to launch an all-out attack on Modi.

The two-pronged attack by Gandhi focused on how the Prime Minister was personally responsible for favouring Anil Ambani with an offset contract and over-pricing the fresh supplies. But, neither the Congress party nor Gandhi had anything new to offer in the debate from what had been said earlier and repeated several times over. In short, the opposition ranks appeared to lack the wherewithal to support the allegations of wrong doing by Modi.

In contrast, finance minister Arun Jaitley’s skills as a lawyer and experienced parliamentarian was in evidence in the debate. Deputed by none other than Modi to stand in, Jaitley not only tore into Congress allegations but hit at its weakest spot i.e. track record of corrupt deals in defence and elsewhere. Interestingly, Prime Minister Modi seems to have been advised to keep off the debate and enter the political slugfest at a later date. Modi would address about 100 rallies beginning with two held in Punjab on Thursday to take on the Congress that has come at him forcefully. However, the face-off should not lead to weakening the security establishment. Equipping the defence forces adequately to fight a multi-dimensional war should be the priority.

At a time when Pakistan is in the process of acquiring four most advanced warships – reportedly in the frigate class and armed with fourth generation fighter aircraft – India has very little option but to match the neighbour’s capabilities. Besides, the Indo-Pacific zone has become the biggest area of operation for Chinese People’s Liberation Army. This has serious implications for India as a big stakeholder in the theatre. Hence, political parties have to restrain themselves from frivolous charges especially in systemically important defence deals for partisan gains. Otherwise, they could be playing into the hands of the enemy, even though unwittingly. Setting up a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) on an inter-government deal would possibly lead to delay in figher aircraft acquisition. This is certainly not advisable.