Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has questions to answer over the Rafale fighter deal controversy. Image: Twitter

JAIPUR – Fresh allegations of forged invoices and a middleman have emerged in the scandal of India’s multi-billion-dollar purchase of Rafale fighter jets from France.

Investigative journalists working for the French Mediapart online news portal claim the deal for 36 aircraft involved offshore companies, dubious contracts and false invoices. 

They allege that kickbacks were paid to middleman Sushen Gupta to help secure the deal. Mediapart has published images of the invoices, however Asia Times could not independently confirm their veracity.

Mediapart says detectives from India’s federal police force, the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI), and colleagues from the Enforcement Directorate (ED), which fights money laundering, have had proof since October 2018 that French aviation firm Dassault paid at least 7.5 million euros (US$8.5 million) in secret commissions to Gupta.

“This was in the context of the French firm’s long and ultimately successful attempt to secure a 7.8 billion euro ($8.8 billion) deal in 2016 to sell 36 of its Rafale fighters to India,” it said.

The Wire, an India-based online news portal, has reported that Gupta has denied all claims made in the French media. A statement attributed to Gupta’s legal counsel said the businessman rejects all claims of “impropriety, irregularity or illegality”.

“The reports seem to be motivated. It is preposterous to suggest that a private individual could have influenced a government-to-government transaction for the acquisition of 36 Rafale jets,” the statement said.

Mediapart alleged that the payments were made from 2002 to 2012 when the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led NDA (National Democratic Alliance) and later the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) were in power.

This was how Indian detectives discovered that Gupta had also acted as an intermediary for Dassault Aviation over the Rafale deal. His Mauritian company, Interstellar Technologies, received at least 7.5 million euros from the French aviation firm between 2007 and 2012, thanks to IT contracts that were clearly overbilled, and from which most of the money was discreetly sent to Mauritius using a system of alleged false invoices, the allegations say.

Sushen Gupta is at the center of the Rafale fighter jet controversy. Image: Twitter

Some of these invoices even got the name of the French company wrong, referring instead to “Dassult Aviation.” Thirty of the fighters have been delivered, with the rest due by April. Mediapart reported earlier that France had opened a criminal investigation on June 14 led by an independent investigating judge.

This would examine questions such as the actions of former French president Francois Hollande, who was in office when the deal was signed, and current President Emmanuel Macron, who was economy and finance minister, as well as then-defense minister, now foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian.

Mediapart said also that the probe would focus on the alleged role of wealthy Indian businessman Anil Ambani, chairman and owner of conglomerate Reliance Group and known to be personally close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The news portal claims Ambani is at the heart of allegations surrounding the jets deal. 

The reports have caused a political storm in India, where Modi’s government portrays itself as “clean.” The latest allegations have added impetus to attacks by the opposition who accuse the government of a cover-up.

“It is baffling why the Narendra Modi government is not very keen on ordering a probe into this deal. France, as per reports, has appointed a judge to investigate the deal,” prominent political observer B K Jha said.

“Why can’t India follow suit, after all it is taxpayers’ money and, above that, it relates to a defense deal? The country needs to know the truth.”

Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera described the government’s action as “Operation Cover-up” and said a melting pot of corruption, kickbacks and collusion had once again been exposed.

Khera said the BJP government had sacrificed national security, jeopardized the interests of the Indian Air Force and caused huge losses to the exchequer. He said each revelation in the murky Rafale affair over the last five years led to the highest echelons of power in the Modi government.

He also asked why the government was not ordering an investigation into Gupta’s role.

Rafale jet deal controversy could hit Modi’s BJP’s chances at upcoming state polls. Credit: French Air Force.

The BJP has hit back by trying to focus attention on the Congress party’s history of corruption. Party spokesperson Sambit Patra said, “INC (Indian National Congress) means ‘I Need Commission’.”

Patra said: “It would not be an over-projection that during the UPA tenure, they had a deal within every deal and they could still not strike a deal.”

He also said Sushen Gupta was already on the ED’s radar over the previous AgustaWestland scam, in which bribes were allegedly paid to middlemen, perhaps even politicians.

In 2010, the Congress party-led government signed a contract for 12 AgustaWestland AW101 helicopters worth $485 million. The scam came to light in 2013.

Commentator Jha said, “Surprisingly, the BJP has been more or less silent on probing the Rafale deal. This has given enough ammunition to the Congress to fire at the Modi government,” Jha said.

Congress says it is not afraid of an inquiry. Party leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted, “When the truth is with you in every step, then what is there to worry about? My Congress colleagues, keep fighting like this against the corrupt central government. Don’t stop, don’t get tired, don’t be afraid.”

The Mediapart reports come as the Modi government’s popularity has been hit hard due to its alleged mishandling of the second wave of Covid from April to June and because of a sagging economy. Unemployment is high and inflation is rising as at least seven states go to assembly polls in the next eight to ten months.

The biggest of these is Uttar Pradesh, where assembly polls are due in February and March next year and which will test Modi’s popularity and serve as a certain barometer for the 2024 parliament elections. Jha, for one, believes that the Rafale scandal could feature prominently on various campaign trails.