There is no occasion to doubt the decision-making process in the procurement of 36 Rafale jets from France, the Supreme Court said on Friday and dismissed all the petitions seeking an investigation into alleged irregularities in the Rs 58,000 crore deal.
There was no substantial evidence of commercial favouritism to any private entity, the bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi said on the issue of an offset partner in its ruling on a batch of petitions.
While one lot sought a court-monitored investigation into the deal, another asked for a direction to the CBI to register an FIR for alleged irregularities.
The bench, also comprising Justices S K Kaul and K M Joseph, said it is not the job of the court to deal with the comparative details of the pricing.
There has been a necessity for fighter aircraft and the country cannot remain without jets, it said.
The CJI, who read out the judgement for the three-judge bench, said no reasons were found to interfere in the procurement process for the fighter jets.
The apex court said it does not find substantial matter to interfere with the issue of procurement, pricing and offset partner.
It noted the need for induction of 4th and 5th generation of fighter aircraft like Rafale in the Indian Air Force (IAF).
Both sides involved in the deal have clarified all aspects in the procurement of Rafale jets deal, the bench said.
The court said nobody questioned the procurement of the Rafale fighter jets when the deal was finalised in September 2016.
It added that questions were raised on jet deal only after former French president Francois Hollande came out with a statement. This cannot be the basis of judicial review, it said.
The court said it cannot compel the government to procure 126 or 36 fighter jets. That depends on its decision.
The apex court reserved its verdict on the batch of pleas on November 14.
Advocate M L Sharma was the first petitioner in the case. Later, another lawyer, Vineet Dhanda, moved the apex court with the plea for court-monitored probe into the deal. AAP leader Sanjay Singh also filed a petition.
After the three petitions were filed, former Union ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie along with activist advocate Prashant Bhushan moved the apex court with a plea for a direction to the CBI to register FIR for alleged irregularities in the deal.
The Centre earlier defended the deal for 36 Rafale fighter jets and opposed public disclosure of the pricing details.
India signed an agreement with France for the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter aircraft in a fly-away condition as part of the upgrading process of Indian Air Force equipment.
The Rafale fighter is a twin-engine Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) manufactured by French aerospace company Dassault Aviation.
While reserving the verdict, the apex court said the pricing details of Rafale jets could only be discussed after it decided on whether to make it public.
The observation by an apex court bench came after the government refused to publicly divulge pricing details of the deal, saying it would give an advantage to India’s enemies.
Hearing a bunch of pleas alleging criminality in the Rafale deal and seeking a court-monitored probe into it, the apex court had asked wide-ranging questions from the government on various issues, including lack of sovereign guarantee from the French government, selection of Indian offset partner by the Dassault Aviation and the need to enter into an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) with France.
The court took note of submissions and counter-arguments on the pricing of the fighter jets with the petitioners alleging that the government has been giving “bogus arguments” and “hiding behind the secrecy clause”.
Vehemently defending non-disclosure of the price publicly, Attorney General K K Venugopal, appearing for the Centre, said that the cost of a bare Rafale jet as per 2016 exchange rate was Rs 670 crore and the disclosure of price of a “fully loaded” aircraft would give an “advantage to the adversaries”.
Bhushan claimed the Union Law Ministry red-flagged two issues — absence of sovereign guarantee by France and the international arbitration clause in IGA as per which the arbitration seat would be at Geneva — but the government went ahead with the deal.
Venugopal admitted there was no sovereign guarantee, but said France has given a ‘letter of comfort’ which would be good enough as a governmental guarantee.
During the hearing, the court also interacted with senior IAF officers and enquired about the requirements of the force.
The IAF officers emphasised the need for induction of ‘four plus or fifth’ generation fighter aircraft like Rafale, which have niche stealth technology and enhanced electronic warfare capabilities.