Ranjona Banerji: Obfuscations abound!

25 Sep,2018

By Ranjona Banerji

For investigative journalism in India, Bofors was an “aha” moment. Although the story was broken by the Swedish media, it did not take long for the Indian media to get its teeth into it. The allegations and revelations were followed assiduously as “breaks” came from Sweden, Dubai, London and India. Reputations in journalism were made on the possible kickbacks around the Bofors deal between Sweden and India. The investigation however dragged on for years, whether during Congress governments or BJP governments or various coalition governments and most of the main accused died before the law reached them. But that was not the fault of the journalists who worked so hard. In Sweden, the assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme was rumoured to be connected to this deal. In India, Rajiv Gandhi lost an election with kickback charges playing a major role.

Now we come to the Rafale fighter jet deal with Dassault Aviation in France. Questions have been swirling over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remade deal with Dassault in 2015, improving on the earlier UPA negotiations. But these questions were always in the background of the news hum. But now, former French president Francois Hollande, who did the new deal with Modi in 2015, has claimed that he was forced by the Indian government-led by Modi to pick Anil Ambani’s newly formed defence company as an offset partner. My o My. Or not, given how some journalists have responded.

Intriguingly, journalists involved in the Bofors investigation feel the need to point out that the Rafale is an excellent fighter jet. But of course, that is not the point. The Bofors howitzer was also supposed to be very good and was very effective in the Kargil War of 1999. It is unfortunate to see this sort of obfuscation. The questions around the Rafale deal are about money and influence. We all know that.

There are other obfuscations around. The original deal with Dassault was for HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics) to be the offset partner. Some journalists are now involved in trashing HAL. But however bad HAL may or may not be, the question of Anil Ambani’s complete lack of experience in defence manufacture becomes even starker.

The two “news” channels who favour the Modi government as in Times Now and Republic TV are looking at how to trap Congress President Rahul Gandhi for the Rafale deal, by using his controversial brother-in-law Robert Vadra. But that is to be expected. Even bog-standard journalism is not practised by these two channels.

Some editors have tried to confuse the issue between the two Ambani brothers. There were talks with Mukesh during the UPA negotiations with Dassault. But questions are now being raised about Anil Ambani. The companies are not the same (one no longer exists) and the deals were different. Why would a journalist bat for the government on this? Yes, yes, we all know the answer to that one.

As an aside, it is interesting how this ploy to bring a UPA-Mukesh Ambani conversation from five years ago to justify the Modi government’s deal was running around social media for hours before Ravi Shankar Prasad, Union minister for law, justice, electronics and information technology, appeared on TV with this very same exact defence. Did the BJP’s IT Cell share it with friendly journalists before they gave it to the minister?

Most other news outlets are playing the reporting game like a tennis match, head moving from one side of the court to the next, as allegations and counter-allegations fly thick and fast. The Hindu, which had a huge role to play in the Bofors investigation, carrying on when most others had put it on the backburner, has not yet come up with anything more substantial than a carefully worded edit.

However, there appear to be leaks and sources from all directions now. From France, which is where Hollande’s first allegation was reported and from where Dassault employees have spoken and where the current defence minister has made a vague statement. From HAL which is smarting at being called incapable by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

This edit in Deccan Herald puts forth the points clearly: it is the responsibility of the Prime Minister to answer the people of India. Far better than the wishy-washy comments from some others.


The Rafale deal is one more test, ladies and gentleman, for our intrepid colleagues in investigative journalism and in media outlets. Will we pass or fail this one this time?

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. The views here are personal



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