As the debate into the Rafale deal further heats with former French president claiming that Indian government proposed Reliance as offset partner, which both current French government and Dassault Aviation have denied now, there is a need to revisit some details about India’s effort to buy Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) since the beginning.
We have already reported that during the first round of bidding for MMRCA, Dassault had chosen Mukesh Ambani led Reliance Industries are their offset partner and refused to take responsibility for planes made by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), which ultimately led to the cancellation of the deal.
Although Reliance had signed a MoU with Dassault, reliance lost interest in defence and aviation business after some time, and they allowed the MoU lapse in 2014. At that time there was no clarity about the future of the deal as both Dassault and GOI were adamant on their position about HAL. When the MoU lapsed, company called Offsets India Solutions (OIS) approached Dassault for a possible tie-up. At that time OIS used to be present at all international events in the defence offset sector. An Economic Times report states that “There was considerable pressure to tie up for a partnership. Proposals were made several times and through several people.”
OIS promoter was Sanjay Bhandari, who was allegedly linked with Robert Vadra, Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s brother-in-law. As reported by Economic Times, Few rounds of talks had taken place between the two companies. But when Dassault came to know about Bhandari’s links with Vadra, they decided against partnering with his firm. Reportedly, the Vadra link was one of the main reasons Dassault refused the deal.
Bhandari was under investigation since 2010 in the charges of wrongly influencing defence deals. In May 2016, his offices were raided by Income Tax Department as part of an investigation in a tax evasion case against Bhandari and his company. During the raids, confidential defence ministry documents were found in his possession, which included documents related to India’s proposal to buy mid-air refuellers. The documents were allegedly related to defence purchases and proposals placed before the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC). There were also allegedly copies of minutes of the Contract Negotiation Committee meeting for purchasing refuellers. After this find, he was booked under the Official Secrets Act by Delhi Police. After that Bhandari managed to escape to London before he could be questioned further.
In the documents recovered during these raids, agencies had found some email exchanges between Bhandari and Robert Vadra. According to a report, when ED had confronted Bhandari with the emails, he had acknowledged the email exchanges between him and Vadra. Emails and phone calls scrutinised by investigators also reveal that Bhandari was in regular contact with bureaucrats and politicians apart from private companies in the defence sector. Sources reveal that Bhandari and Vadra were spotted together in social circles and arms expos in various part of the world.
On further investigation by Enforcement Directorate, he was also booked under PMLA and in December last year, ED had seized assets worth ₹26.61 crore belonging to Bhandari. The property was seized in lieu of undisclosed assets held aboard by him.
In January this year, Sanjay Bhandari was declared a ‘proclaimed offender’ by a Delhi court under the Official Secrets Act, due to failure to attend before the court. He is also under CBI investigation for his links with to alleged malpractices in the selection of a Swiss aircraft, Pilatus PC-7. The defence ministry has since suspended all dealings with OIS.