State of the Nation | When the spin doctors lose the plot

It is becoming increasingly difficult for BJP spokespersons to convincingly defuse the Rafale controversy. As a result, they’ve been offering explanations mired in confusion and illogic 

Defending the indefensible is no easy task. Even seasoned masters of spin find this difficult when the tools of their trade - biased interpretation of facts, manipulating perceptions and diverting attention - fail them. And when that happens, their wit and charm deserts them. In its stead, desperation, confusion and illogic takes over. Even those, otherwise blessed with the clarity of thought, find themselves faltering and failing in their damage control mission.

This has been the predicament of BJP spokespersons and ministers trying to defend the Rs 58,000 crore Rafale jet fighter deal between India and France. Their unenviable task was made trickier ever since former French President Francois Hollande’s sensational disclosure on Friday that Reliance Defence, an Anil Ambani Group company, had replaced the government-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) as the offset partner in the re-worked contract at the insistence of the Indian government.

Hollande’s revelation only added fuel to the Opposition charge that the aircraft deal smacked of crony capitalism and corruption. As a result, the express task before the spin masters was to rubbish Hollande’s claim and to simultaneously divert attention from two crucial questions being raised by the Opposition: (1) Why was the old Rafale contract abruptly scrapped during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Paris visit in April 2015; and (2) Was a new deal, which more than doubled the cost per aircraft, drawn up hurriedly to facilitate the entry of Reliance Defence into the contract?

To their credit, BJP spokespersons and ministers have employed every trick in the book to divert attention from these two questions. But they have failed so far in the effort. In fact, some desperate moves at firefighting have had a negative fallout strengthening the perception that the government has something to hide. Here are some strategies deployed for defending the indefensible that missed the mark:

The spectre of the foreign conspiracy: Since there was a French connection, it was alleged that Hollande may have been working in tandem with Rahul Gandhi. This was suggested by none other than Finance Minister Arun Jaitley who had very recently dismissed the Congress President as a “Clown Prince.”

In a sudden U-turn, he attributed Machiavellian attributes to the Clown on September 23 when he told the news agency ANI that he saw a link between Rahul Gandhi’s charges against the NDA government and Hollande’s statement. “I think he (Rahul Gandhi) is in some kind of a revenge mode. I won’t be surprised if the whole thing is being orchestrated. On August 30, why did he (Rahul) tweet ‘Just wait for a while, some bombs are going to be burst in Paris’? And then what happens is in perfect rhythm with what he predicted,” said Jaitley.

He based his entire conspiracy theory on an August 30 tweet. In it, the Congress President had reacted to an Indian Express report of the Anil Ambani Group financing a film by Hollande’s partner, actor Julie Gayet. Rahul had tweeted: “Globalised corruption. This #Rafaleaircraft really does fly far and fast! It’s also going to drop some big bunker buster bombs in the next couple of weeks. Modi Ji please tell Anil, there is a big problem in France.”

Jaitley cleverly did not place the tweet in context but conveniently arrived at the conclusion that the former French President had conspired with Rahul the Clown.

Earlier, BJP President, Amit Shah, saw a Pakistan hand in the raking up of the Rafale controversy. His simplistic logic was spelt out in this Tweet:

Incidentally, the international conspiracy theory was also endorsed, among others, by Minister of State for Sports Rajyavardhan Rathore as well as BJP’s troll army.

Hollande is contradiction personified: This spin has been advanced as conclusive proof that there was no controversy in the first place. And the basis for this are the statements Hollande gave to the news agency, AFP, at a conference in Toronto. When asked about the Rafale deal, he reportedly stated that (a) the name of Reliance surfaced as part of the “new formula” in negotiations decided by the Modi government and (b) he was “unaware” if the Indian government put pressure on Dassault to work with Reliance and that question can best be answered by Dassault.

The second part of his answer is what has been played up by the BJP to show that Dassault was not pressurised by the Indian government and hence the choice of offset partner was purely a commercial decision between two corporate entities. But Hollande’s reiteration of his earlier statement to the French website Mediapart that Reliance was part of the “new formula” advanced by the Modi government has been conveniently ignored.

Hollande had merely denied that he knew of any pressure put on Dassault by India in choosing a new offset partner.

Dassault-Reliance MoU signed during UPA-II: This sensational revelation made a splash but has died down since. It was alleged that the tie-up between Dassault and Reliance was forged in 2012 during Manmohan Singh’s second tenure as Prime Minister. The bombshell was dropped by Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. He substantiated his claim by referring to a Times of India report of February 13, 2012 that an MoU was signed between Dassault Aviation and Reliance Industries Limited (RIL).

What was perhaps deliberately forgotten was that RIL is owned by Mukesh Ambani who had parted ways with his brother Anil in 2005 after a much-reported split in the family. The 2012 MoU was between RIL and Dassault which was later terminated and had nothing to do with the Rafale deal. It was Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence which had entered into a partnership with Dassault on March 28, 2015, less than a fortnight before the old Rafale deal was scrapped and a new one announced on April 10, during Modi’s Paris visit.

Official denial is the gospel truth: It has been argued that the Congress and other Opposition parties should drop their demand for a Joint Parliamentary probe since the French government denies Hollande’s allegation. Ditto the Ministry of Defence in India. Since both governments refute any favours shown to Reliance, where was the controversy?

This position, incidentally, is a far cry from the BJP’s own stand on government denials when it was in the Opposition. In any case, no government is known to openly admit to scams under its watch. In fact, its first reaction is to slip into denial mode. And that’s exactly what New Delhi and Paris have done.

History says it all: When nothing works, BJP spokespersons have the habit of subjecting us to some history lessons on corruption. Going back to the Jeep Scam of 1948, Indira Gandhi’s “infamous election scandal” of 1971, the Bofors gun deal and a “barrage of scams” during UPA, we were reminded of the corrupt Nehru-Gandhi family by the likes of Hardeep Singh Puri, Minister of State for Housing and Urban affairs.

Unfortunately, none of these explanations/diversions answer the two basic questions raised by the Opposition vis-à-vis the Rafale deal. Undoubtedly, the government has the answers which it does not wish to make public for obvious reasons. Under the circumstances, the spokespersons, like spin bowlers, can do no more than bowl flat deliveries on a pitch that offers very little assistance.

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