Dassault CEO Eric Trappier, in a tell-all interview with ANI's Smita Prakash, has given a comprehensive background of the deal struck between France and India for 36 Rafale aircraft, which has come under the spotlight amid Congress' allegations of irregularities, particularly about the choice of a private company Reliance (Anil Ambani's group) over state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) as an offset partner. In the interview, Trappier has answered on why this choice was taken and by whom.
While speaking about the ongoing deal, as part of which India will receive Rafale jets made by Dassault Aviation in a fly-away condition, Trappier also refers on numerous times to the previous deal that was under discussion -- where India would get 126 Rafales, of which a first set were to be made by Dassault and the remaining, in India.
Trappier, who has been at Dassault since the 80s and as CEO since 2013, gave an almost decade-long timeline for the deal, starting from 2007 when the Rafale was in competition with other fighters for 126 aircraft which India wanted to buy. "We were designated L1 competitor in 2012. From 2012 till 2016 we've been working to try to finalise the deal. For some reasons which may be exposed by the government of India, this deal didn't go through, and India, because of the urgency of the requirement, requested the government of France to supply 36 Rafales, which the French government accepted and told us in 2016, " Trappier said.
He elaborated, "We have been negotiating with India for a long time, since 2016. In the spirit of finalising the deal of 126, it was slow, and we observed it was slow. But we were in line with what the government of India is requesting from us and suddenly when there was a visit of the PM, there was a deal between two governments , and government of France, through the ministry of defence, told us about the decision of India to go ahead with 36 Rafales sold by the government of France."
When asked about what changed between the deal for 126 aircraft and 36 aircraft, Trappier said: "As a supplier, we were really trying to get the deal, as we had won the process, and it was for 126 aircraft. We were working on the deal with HAL and IAF. But it was slow. I believe the deal for 126 is too slow and difficult and so go ahead with 36 supplied by France. That's what happened in 2015."
He was then asked whether he (Dassault) believed that HAL didn't have the capability to produce, in the context of Reliance being chosen as the offset partner, to which he answered on the basis of the initial deal for 126 aircraft: "I didn't think HAL didn't have (capacity to produce)... we have a long experience with HAL. I have worked myself with HAL and I have huge respect. What was difficult was 2 things - responsibility for first aircraft... it was like a license. First 18 by Dassault and remaining by HAL via licensed production, as a production agency -- how many hours would HAL take to make aircraft vs Rafale? And in 126, should Dassault be responsible for first 18 and who takes the responsibility for the rest? This was a responsibility of HAL to produce, not mine." He harkened back to a deal in the 80s for the Mirage fighter, saying, "When we sold the Mirage, we had an option of selling license. Maintenance and overhaul of Mirage were performed by HAL."
Coming directly to the matter of choosing Reliance as the offset partner, and former French President Francois Hollande saying that the Government of India had asked Dassault to pick Reliance, Trappier immediately set the record straight. "Totally untrue", he said, adding, "Former President Hollande made a correction. He said two partners chose each other together. It's not a decision of either government that Dassault selected Reliance. If I started the discussion with Reliance in 2011, then President wasn't Hollande and PM of India was different. And we settled an agreement in 2012."
At this point, Smita Prakash pointed out that the Reliance with which Dassault had initiated discussions in 2011 was Mukesh Ambani's Reliance. To this, the Dassault CEO spoke of the industrialist brothers together, though they have run separate conglomerates since the early 2000s, saying, "We decided to go ahead with the group Reliance. They are brothers, they have their mother, they're sons of (Dhirubhai) Ambani. It's a family. It's a big group. It was totally in line to go with Reliance, with one or the other company".
He spoke about the JV the two companies have formed for the purpose: "When we created the JV last year, it was part of our 2012 agreement, but we waited for the contract to be signed. Shares in the JV is 49% (Dassault) - 51% (Reliance). To begin works, we have already put about Rs 40 crore, but it'll be increased to Rs 800 crore in the next five years.
Trappier was then asked to comment on allegations regarding the French government and French politics playing some role in irregularities, which he dismissed. "I don't comment about what happens and what's happening in the frame of government. Government of India has its own procedures and I'm convinced it followed its procedures. And I'm sure Government of France has its procedures, different procedures, and they followed."
Coming to the specific allegation which the Congress keeps coming back to, that Anil Ambani's Reliance was chosen as offset partner despite having no experience in the sector, Trappier said, "We're not putting money in Reliance. We are putting it in a JV. In a JV, I put my knowhow free of charge, engineers, workers, who are taking a lead as far as industry or part of JV is concerned, while I have an Indian company Reliance, putting money because they want to support the development of the country. They are going to know about how to produce aircraft."
Smita Prakash countered him in terms of Reliance being interested in the development of the country, vis-a-vis being interested in profits and revenues, to which he replied: "If you'd have said that in America, they'd not have been what they are today. Take Lockheed -- it's good for their economy, when the companies are doing well, pilot companies, the country does well."
Next, he was asked directly why Dassault wouldn't work with HAL in the deal. Here is his response, revealing that it was his decision to go with Reliance:
"Had we signed for 126 we would have worked with HAL and Reliance (both) as we were already in partnership with Reliance. But because deal 126 didn't go through, Government of India had to reconfigure for 36 with France, and then I took the decision to continue with Reliance, and HAL said in last few days (recently) that they were not interested to be part of offset."
He listed the reasoning behind the decision: "It has been my decision and decision of Reliance to go ahead and invest in a new private company. It's good to be private and small company, to develop new processes. We will have a digital company, Nagpur will be a digital city, it's a nice place, I have been there. It's good for everyone", he said speaking about the land for the planned defence park.
Smita Prakash then challenged him on the direct allegations levelled by Rahul Gandhi -- that he and PM Modi each broke the laws in their own countries -
"Do you think he (Rahul) is right? Because if I break rules in my country, I will face problem which isn't the case. I am totally clean. I am French, I live in France. My company has 100 years. Everyone is looking at Dassault for a long time. Had I done something wrong, it would have been known. I am totally transparent."