Modi Govt Worried About Rafale Review? Takeaways From SC Hearing

With the Rafale deal back in the SC and an Opposition that refuses to quit, the Modi government should be worried.

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The Rafale deal returned to the Supreme Court on 6 March, and while this sounds like an old story, the Centre’s legal response this time round, took an interesting turn, to say the least.

I'm Vishnu Gopinath and this is The Big Story podcast where we break down the news with expert inputs. You can subscribe to The Quint’s channel on Spotify, Apple or Google Podcasts.

On this episode, we'll tell you the most important takeaways from the Supreme Court’s hearing of several review petitions seeking an investigation into the Rafale jet deal.

Click on the player here to listen to the full podcast!

First off, several review petitions challenging the Supreme Court’s verdict on the Rafale jet deal came up for hearing on 6 March.

In case you forgot, late last year, the Supreme Court refused to intervene over the Rafale deal because they said that there were no irregularities with the procedure followed for it.

But after the verdict, several reports were published in The Hindu, with documents from within the Defence Ministry which showed that there were concerns within the ministry itself about the Rafale jets’ procurement process which the Modi government carried out in 2015 – and this information doesn’t appear to have been submitted to the Supreme Court.

So, the review petitions? They relied pretty heavily on these documents to support their argument.

Now, here’s the twist. As soon as the issue of these documents came up, Attorney General KK Venugopal – you know, the man who represents the government in court – told the court that these documents can’t be admissible as evidence because they were stolen, and so the review petitions needed to be dismissed.

He didn’t deny the authenticity of the documents. He didn’t claim that the documents were falsified or forged. Venugopal simply said that the documents were stolen…so they aren’t admissible as evidence in court.

On top of this, he also said the documents were top secret, and publishing them or even using them in court was a violation of the Official Secrets Act.

And to round off the trifecta of “WTF” he added the government was also considering prosecuting the newspapers, namely The Hindu, and the petitioners over the documents. Because… national security.

That’s right. It’s ye olde National Security defence. Of course, this hasn’t gone over well with all the parties. Here’s how The Hindu publishing Group’s Chairman N Ram responded to the attorney general’s statement:

Whatever criminal action they are willing to take (against us), we are perfectly willing to face it. This kind of talk is an attempt to put pressure on the press to create a climate of fear.
N Ram, Chairman, The Hindu Group, to BloombergQuint

Of course, the three-judge bench, which included the chief justice, responded to Venugopal’s arguments about the documents being invalid as evidence because they were stolen…by saying that they can very much, still, be admissible if they’re relevant to the case.

And about Venugopal saying that revealing the documents compromised national security?

Justice Joseph replied with this:

“If a grave crime had been committed, of corruption, are you really going to hide behind national security?”
Justice KM Joseph

…BOOM! Justice Joseph just did a mic drop on A-G Venugopal!

But did it, mercifully, end there?

Not by a long shot. The A-G followed up that argument by saying that the Parliament should be the one handling the Rafale controversy, NOT the judiciary. Because...I'm going to quote him here because I can't make this stuff up…

“Every single sentence from you will be used by the Opposition for destabilising the government. Would your Lordships want to be party to this?”
Attorney General KK Venugopal

That's the attorney general...addressing the highest court in the country…I...can’t…even...

I’m frankly speechless at this point, so I’m going to ask Vakasha Sachdev, our legal editor, to take over and explain some of the other highlights of what happened in court on 6 March.

There are a number of problems with what happened in court. First off, talking about what A-G Venugopal said about this destabilising the govt...is bizarre, and in fact could even amount to contempt. Apart from that, the Centre’s arguments have made two important points very clear. First, that the leaked documents that formed the basis for this review, are genuine. They aren’t falsified in any way. The A-G’s admitted as much. And second and MOST important – it proves that the government didn’t reveal all the facts about the Rafale deal in their “sealed cover” notes which the Supreme Court referred.   
Vakasha Sachdev, Legal Editor, The Quint

Those are some pretty important facts to disclose so off-handedly, and the way the government tried to argue in court today, threatening Official Secrets Act cases and demanding the source of the documents be revealed, only makes it all look worse. And coming in the run-up to the 2019 election, this isn’t a great look for them.

The Opposition though? Well, they've made it clear that they won’t let this rest easy.

The court will continue hearing the matter on the 14th of March. Will the attorney general continue his line of argument? What defence will the Centre mount next? Stay tuned and find out on The Big Story podcast.

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