Supreme Court gives Government four days to reply in Rafale case

Attorney general KK Venugopal sought four weeks’ time to file the Centre’s reply. The bench, headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi, directed the government to file its reply by May 4 and posted the matter for hearing on May 6.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday gave the Centre four days instead of four weeks to file its reply to the review petitions filed in the Rafale case and allowed Congress president Rahul Gandhi to file a “good affidavit” in a related contempt case after the judges said they weren’t convinced by his expression of regret on the matter.

Attorney general KK Venugopal sought four weeks’ time to file the Centre’s reply. The bench, headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi, directed the government to file its reply by May 4 and posted the matter for hearing on May 6. The bench, also comprising justice Sanjay Kaul and justice KM Joseph, sought the Centre’s reply on a separate plea by the petitioner to initiate perjury action against officials who allegedly misguided the apex court in the Rafale case.

Venugopal told the court: “The Centre has circulated a letter in the review petition for adjournment of the proceedings. We need time to file counter in the review petition. No formal notices have been issued.”

On December 14, the Supreme Court dismissed all petitions seeking a court-monitored probe of the ~59,000 crore Rafale fighter jet deal with France, saying that there was no occasion to doubt the decision-making process in the deal. The petitioners, former Union ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie and advocate Prashant Bhushan, moved the Supreme Court for a review of the verdict.

The petition said the verdict contained errors and relied on incorrect claims made by the government in an unsigned note given in a sealed cover to the court.

On the contempt petition against Gandhi filed by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) Meenakshi Lekhi, the CJI told the Congress president’s lawyer Abhishek Manu Singhvi: “We have difficulty in understanding what you are trying to say [in the affidavit]. You make a statement and justify it. How can you attribute the statement to us? Where is the complete regret? You take 22 pages to express regret.”

Gandhi last week filed an affidavit to explain his first reaction to the April 10 court ruling on use of leaked defence ministry documents for the Rafale review petition. Gandhi then appeared to remark that the court said “Chowkidar chor hai [the watchman is a thief]”, repeating a slogan that he and the Congress have used to target Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Gandhi has told the court that his remarks were not meant to obstruct administration of justice or scandalise the court in any manner. Gandhi also apologised for ascribing comments to the court and said this happened in the “heat of campaigning”.

CJI Gogoi questioned Gandhi’s latest affidavit and asked: “What is the meaning of expression of regret ?”

Justice Kaul said: “The affidavit is full of contradictions. At one point you say ‘I was misled by the situation’, at some other place you say something else. When you make a mistake, admit it.”

Singhivi tried to persuade the judges that Gandhi had clearly regretted the mistake and said:“Regret is same as apology, I have checked the dictionary. If there is a deficiency in the previous affidavit, please allow me to file a new affidavit. I will make a better affidavit. I sincerely apologise for attributing the comments to the Supreme Court.”

But when he didn’t satisfy the court, the senior lawyer offered to file a fresh affidavit.

Appearing for Lekhi, senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi asked the court to reject Gandhi’s affidavit and proceed against him. Rohatgi argued: “He has put words in the mouth of Supreme Court for political gains. Identical affidavit was filed 10 days back. This is the grossest form of contempt.”

Speaking to reporters later, Lekhi said: “His lawyer apologising on his behalf in the court is not enough. Rahul Gandhi should file a written affidavit seeking an apology. It is clear that our petition was right and they have committed a crime, they are trying to justify their crime, meaning they have no fear of the judiciary.”

The court will now hear the contempt case against Rahul Gandhi on May 10.

The National Democratic Alliance’s decision to enter an $8.7 billion government-to-government deal with France to buy 36 Rafale warplanes made by Dassault Aviation was announced in April 2015, with an agreement signed a little over a year later. This replaced the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime’s decision to buy 126 Rafale aircraft, 108 of which were to be made in India by state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.

The deal has become controversial with the opposition, led by the Congress, claiming that the price at which India is buying Rafale aircraft now is ~1,670 crore for each, three times the ~526 crore, the initial bid by the company when the UPA was trying to buy the aircraft. It has also claimed the previous deal included a technology transfer agreement with HAL.

The NDA has not disclosed details of the price, but the UPA deal, struck in 2012, was not a viable one, former defence minister Manohar Parrikar has previously said, implying that it would have never been closed and that, therefore, any comparison was moot. Indeed, the UPA was not able to close the deal till 2014, largely over discussions related to pricing of items not included in the initial bid.

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