The demise of George Fernandes today brings back the memory of how he, and the NDA government he was part of, was hounded by Congress using a fake scam. During the Kargil war, the government of India had purchased 500 coffins from a company in the USA for transporting the mortal remains of the soldiers perished in action. The coffins cost $2,500 per unit. The opposition parties, led by Congress, had alleged that there was a huge scam in the purchase as the price paid by India was too high. It was alleged that the price was thirteen times the original price, and India had lost $1,87,000 in the ‘scam’. George Fernandes was defence minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government at that time, two persons known for their personal integrity.
This ‘coffin scam’ has lots of similarities with the ongoing ‘Rafale scam’ that Rahul Gandhi is trying to establish as a real scam. Although the Congress party badly wants the ‘Rafale scam’ to become the Bofors scam for BJP, it is actually a repeat of ‘Coffin scam’. Both so‑called scams are based on fictitious allegations, made up numbers, and complete disregard for facts. In both the cases, opposition parties ignore information provided by the Indian government and respective foreign governments.
During the Kargil war, the Indian government had decided to purchase high-quality Aluminium coffins for the armed forces. The Indian armed forces had seen such coffins used by American forces in peacekeeping missions abroad and had sought the same for Indian Army. The coffins are actually Aluminium caskets, which are reusable, unlike the single-use wooden coffins. They are called transfer cases, used by the military to transport bodies from harsh conditions, and they can’t be compared with ordinary coffins used for funerals. Just like at present Rahul Gandhi is comparing the prices of bare aircraft and fully loaded Rafale, that time also prices of Aluminium caskets were compared with ordinary coffins to invent a scam.
Both the Indian government and French government has assured that Dassault is free to select its offset partners, but Rahul Gandhi keeps alleging that Dassault was forced to select Reliance as offset partner, and Modi has given ₹30,000 crore to Anil Ambani through the Rafale deal. Similarly, the government of the United States of America had confirmed in writing that the caskets cost $2,768 each, therefore, the price India was paying was not more than then the actual price. In fact, India was able to secure a discount on the custom-made coffins.
Adding more fuel to the so-called coffin scam, a CAG report had said that actual price of the coffins is $172 only. This figure had no basis as there was no evidence of anyone buying or selling Aluminium caskets at such a low price. Even single-use wooden coffins cost more than that, therefore it was impossible that Aluminium caskets will be available at such low price, given that these items are custom made based on orders mainly for military, and not mass produced for general use. Later it was found that $172 could be rent for the reusable caskets, and not price of the same. Just like Rahul Gandhi has used the entire offset amount in Rafale deal, the bulk of which go to PSUs, a benefit given to Reliance, that time also a rental price was used as the purchase price to invent a scam.
Just like during that time the opposition had ignored that fact that India was buying a US military standard product which can’t be compared with products made for general public, this time also the Congress party is ignoring that fact that Dassault has made several India specific modifications to the Rafale jet, and it includes several advanced weapons and other systems.
The main corruption involved in any defence deal is a bribe paid by the supplier to win the deal. But in the current allegation about the Rafale deal, nobody has alleged any payment of a bribe. The aircraft was selected during the UPA government after an extensive bidding process, and the current deal is with the French government, therefore there is no bribe angle. Similarly, there were no allegations of bribes being paid in the coffin deal, it was just a wild accusation of excess payment.
The most important fact is, ultimately the court had found that there was no evidence of any scam in the coffin deal during the ABV government. In 2013, the court had discharged three army officials named in the case for lack evidence. In 2015, the Supreme Court had given a clean chit to the NDA government over the case, as the allegations were not proved during the CBI probe. Similarly, several petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court alleging a scam in the Rafale deal, but the apex court has refused to order a probe in the deal after studying all the documents related to the purchase of 36 fighter jets from France.
Even after courts had found no evidence of corruption in the coffin deal, Congress continued to make the allegations, just like Rahul Gandhi keeps repeating his lies about the Rafale deal even after Supreme Court has found no wrongdoing.
Although Coffin scam was not real, Congress was able to cast a shadow of doubt over the integrity of Vajpayee government with the help of a media that refuses to fact check allegations made by the party. Sonia Gandhi had called late Atal Bihari Vajpayee a ‘Kafan Chor’. And the exact thing is being repeated now, with no media dares to question Rahul Gandhi on his ₹30,000 crore allegations, and Rahul Gandhi saying “Chowkidar Chor Hai”, referring to Narendra Modi.