Friday, September 23, 2016

The story behind the story on Rafale that I broke

Last year in April, I almost ignored one of the biggest tip-offs I have received as a journalist but managed to put it up on my blog 12 hours after I first heard about it. 

The story begins on the morning of 9 April 2015, around 1130 am when I bumped into a top defence source at the domestic airport in Delhi who casually mentioned that a decision has been taken by the government to buy the Rafale combat jets off the shelf from France, scrapping an ongoing process that was going nowhere. 

I heard the source say that between 60 and 63 jets were to be bought. Apparently, the decision was taken at a special meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) hours before Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to depart for France. A few hours after that we had this accidental meeting at the airport.

My 'news antennae' was immediately up and I had no doubt about the authenticity of the new since the source was top class but as luck would have it, I had back-to-back appointments that day culminating in a dinner at an embassy. Since I was by now freelancing, I wasn't sure who among the news outlets would believe me with such a massive news break. So I hesitated and kept the information with me.Until about 10.45 at night. 

As I got into the car for a 45-minute journey home, it struck me that this gold standard info should not go unreported. What if some one else also reports it in tomorrow morning's newspaper,I thought to myself and started writing furiously on my I-phone.

Reaching home around 1130, I decided to put up the news on my own blog. So about 10 minutes to midnight on 9 April ( now I see the time was actually 1153 pm), I published this ( blog post, sticking my neck out. 

All hell broke loose in the aviation circles across the world around midnight IST as I tweeted the link to the piece. Many enquiries were made, many Direct Messages on twitter were exchanged and it wasn't until about 4 am that I could sleep.

Waking up later than usual the next day (10 April), I scanned the morning newspaper for any news on Rafale and sure enough one of the Delhi papers had more or less the same information as I had.

The South Block, headquarter of India's Ministry of Defence (MoD), was--friends on the defence beat said--swarming with reporters of international news agencies and newspapers that afternoon, trying to confirm the news. Indian Air Force officials and the MoD Spokesperson were inundated with calls trying to verify the news put out by me and another newspaper about the decision on Rafale. No one seem to have any idea. Our reports were in fact run down by established celebrity defence analysts as fanciful and unrealistic. To be honest, I did feel bit uneasy but kept the faith since I had got the news from someone who had an inside track in the government.

As the day progressed, one hint of that there was indeed the possibility of a deal being announced came through a report from Paris which quoted Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) confirming that talks were on on this issue. 

I felt slightly assured.

But it was not until past 10 pm Indian time--nearly 23 hours after I had taken a chance to put out what looked liked an improbable news at that time--that I could heave a sigh of relief. Prime Minister Modi announced at a joint press conference with French President Francois Hollande that he had asked France to supply 36 Rafale planes in ready to fly condition ( 

I had got the numbers wrong however. I had said India may buy 60 to 63 Rafales. It turned out that the numbers were to be restricted to 36. 

Since then, in the last 17 months, despite what many naysayers said, my sources in the IAF and MoD negotiating team kept insisting that the deal would go through and go through on India's terms. 

In some hours from now, the Indian and the French Defence Ministers will witness the signing of the formal contract. India has got its way in many respects ( but skeptics will still have doubts. 

For the sake of the country's security and for the IAF to remain a potent force, let's wish the main protagonists good luck.

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