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How Rahul Gandhi is trying to make Rafale Modi's Bofors

Congress president Rahul Gandhi is on the offensive against Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the Rafale jet fighters deal with French defence giant Dassault Aviation. Launching a frontal attack on the PM, the Congress chief called him corrupt and demanded his resignation.

Rahul Gandhi's latest aggression was precipitated by a report in a French journal Mediapart, which cited internal documents of Dassault Aviation and claimed that the French defence giant was made to choose industrialist Anil Ambani's Reliance Defence as its offset partner in India as a trade-off for clinching the deal.

Rahul Gandhi's personal attack on Narendra Modi is reminiscent of what VP Singh, as a rebel Congress leader and former defence minister, did to then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

What VP Singh did to Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi seems to be doing exactly that to Narendra Modi.

Even after three decades of litigation, the Bofors scandal is still in the realm of suspicion. Though Rajiv Gandhi was exonerated in 2004, it was only 15 years after he lost power because of the Bofors scam and 13 years after he was assassinated.

The politics around the Rafale deal seems to be going the Bofors way with Rahul Gandhi apparently taking a cue from VP Singh's charge against his father Rajiv Gandhi.

Though no charges against Rajiv Gandhi has been proved, VP Singh succeeded in defaming him and creating perception that the Congress government was corrupt. This strategy had catapulted VP Singh to the PM's post in the 1989 Lok Sabha election.

On March 24, 1986, the Rajiv Gandhi government entered into a Rs 1,437-crore deal with Swedish arms manufacturer AB Bofors for the supply of 400 155mm Howitzer guns for the Indian Army.

However, about a year later on April 16, 1987, the Radio Sweden claimed that AB Bofors had paid kickbacks to top Indian politicians and defence personnel.

The CBI registered an FIR charging criminal conspiracy, bribery, corruption, cheating and forgery against then president of AB Bofors Martin Ardbo, alleged middleman Win Chadda and the Hinduja brothers on January 22, 1990.

The first chargesheet, filed on October 22, 1999, named Win Chadda, Ottavio Quattrocchi, then defence secretary SK Bhatnagar, Ardbo and the Bofors company. The Hinduja brothers were named in a a supplementary chargesheet which was filed on October 9, 2000.

The Delhi High Court exonerated Rajiv Gandhi in the case on February 4, 2004. It also directed framing of charge of forgery against Bofors.

On May 31, 2005, the Delhi High Court quashed charges against all accused persons.

About six years later on March 4, 2011, a special CBI court discharged Quattrocchi saying the country had already spent Rs 250 crore on his extradition and it could not afford to spend any more.

The case is likely to be heard in the Supreme Court after BJP's Ajay Agrawal filed an appeal in the Supreme Court against the Delhi High Court's 2005 order. Agrawal had unsuccessfully contested against then Congress president and Rahul Gandhi's mother Sonia Gandhi from Raebareli.

In the absence of clinching evidence, the Bofors case drags even 32 years after India signed the deal for Howitzer guns.

The Rafale deal has already witnessed a labyrinthine journey. The UPA government led by Manmohan Singh started talks with France while the deal was signed by incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the then French President Francois Hollande in January 2016 during the latter's India visit.

The terms of reference have changed and so have the governments and the offset partners.

About a year ago in November 2017, the Congress raised the Rafale deal. It accused the Modi government of promoting crony capitalism, compromising with national security and causing loss to the national exchequer.

Congress's communications department chief Randeep Singh Surjewala alleged that the BJP-led NDA government neglected the interests of public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).

A week later in November 2017 itself, Rahul Gandhi took up the Rafale deal and questioned Narendra Modi over the deal and the alleged favouritism to a "businessman".

The matter has travelled a long distance since then. Rahul Gandhi raised the matter in the budget and monsoon sessions of Parliament this year. He has raked it up in the assembly elections in Gujarat in December 2017 and Karnataka early this year.

Charges, counter-charges and refutations have flown thick and fast in the past one year. The most significant one was during the no-confidence motion in the monsoon session of Parliament.

Rahul Gandhi claimed that French President Emmanuel Macron had told him that there was no secrecy clause regarding the price of the 36 Rafale fighter jets being bought by India in flyaway condition.

Within hours of his statement, French government issued an official statement to counter Rahul Gandhi's claim confirming that there indeed was a secrecy pact between India and France.

Since then, the matter has been seeing lower-level politics with the Congress and Rahul Gandhi calling Prime Minister Narendra Modi "chor" (thief) and corrupt.

VP Singh had similarly targeted Rajiv Gandhi in 1989. It had paid rich dividends to him. His Janata Dal won and he became the prime minister.

Rajiv Gandhi had come to power with the Congress winning three-fourths majority in the 1984 Lok Sabha election and the Opposition was weak and divided. In the same manner, Narendra Modi-led BJP rode to power with a thumping majority in 2014. No government in the three decades had a clear majority.

So, is Rahul Gandhi taking a cue from VP Singh? In the hope of wresting power from the BJP in 2019 Lok Sabha election, Rahul Gandhi may be doing to Narendra Modi what VP Singh had done to his father.

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