The Supreme Court Wednesday said a discussion on the pricing of Rafale fighter jets can only take place if the facts of the deal are allowed to come into the public domain.
The apex court, which began its hearing on pleas seeking a court-monitored probe into the procurement of 36 Rafale fighter jets from France, also said it was dealing with the requirements of the Air Force and would like to hear from an Air Force officer and “not the official of the Defence Ministry”.
“The decision we need to take is whether to bring the fact on pricing in public domain or not,” a bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi said. The bench, also comprising Justices S K Kaul and K M Joseph, told Attorney General K K Venugopal that there is no question of any debate on pricing without making the facts public. The bench clarified that any discussion on price will be considered if it thinks the issue should enter the public domain. The top court also sought the assistance of an Air Force officer on the issue.
“We are dealing with the requirements of the Air Force and would like to ask an Air Force officer on Rafale jets. We want to hear from an Air force officer and not the official of the Defence Ministry on the issue,” the bench said when the attorney general began his arguments on behalf of the Centre in the pre-lunch session. The SC has resumed hearing the case as you read this.
In his arguments, Venugopal defended the secrecy clause relating to the pricing of the Rafale jets, saying adversaries may get an advantage if the entire details are disclosed. Refusing to divulge details on the pricing aspect, he said he would not be able to assist the court further on the pricing issue. “I decided not to peruse it myself as in a case of any leak, my office would be held responsible,” Venugopal said. The bench then told him there is no question of any debate on pricing without making the facts public. Venugopal said these matters are for experts to deal with. “We have been saying that even Parliament has not been told about the complete cost of the jets,” he said.
The hearing saw Venugopal opposing advocate Prashant Bhushan who wanted to submit information on the secrecy clause of the Rafale agreement. “Secrecy agreement has to be secret and how is he producing it in court?” Venugopal asked when Bhushan raised the issue. Bhushan, appearing on behalf of himself and former Union ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie, alleged that the government was hiding behind the secrecy clause and had not disclosed the price of the fighter jets. The CJI told Bhushan, “We are giving you full hearing. Use this opportunity carefully and cite only those things which are necessary.”