‘But it was your rule’: Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman counters Congress on Rafale deal
With the opposition clearly unwilling to back down on the Rafale fighter deal, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Tuesday hit out at the Congress that has alleged the NDA government changed the contract to favour an industrialist at the cost of state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, or HAL.
Sitharaman dismissed this charge, pointing that the fact was that the rules framed by the previous Congress-led coalition had allowed the foreign companies to enter into a deal with a private companies as well to satisfy offset clauses, and not necessarily a public sector firm.
“Do you say that your rule was wrong... It is your rule,” the minister said at a free-wheeling question-answer session at the Indian Women’s Press Corps.
Most of the questions at the interaction were on the political controversy around the Rafale fighter jet deal that opposition leaders such as Congress president Rahul Gandhi have called the “the corruption of the century”.
The deal had become controversial on account of the fact that one of the offset deals signed by Dassault is with the Reliance Group of Anil Ambani, who has been particularly targeted by the Congress chief.
Also, the Congress claims that the fourth generation fighter jets being bought by the NDA were ‘overpriced’, three times the ₹526 crore that was going to be the price when the UPA was buying the aircraft.
Sitharaman insisted this wasn’t true and the government was getting the basic cost of the Rafale fighter jets at nine per cent cheaper than what the UPA dispensation had agreed upon
Senior Congress leader AK Antony, who was also the country’s defence minister in the UPA government, however, has questioned the ruling BJP’s contention that it had sealed the deal at a much cheaper price.
If the price of the Rafale fighter jets were cheaper than that negotiated by the UPA, why did the NDA not buy 126 aircraft instead of just 36 , Antony had asked earlier in the day. He also reiterated the demand for a joint parliamentary committee to probe the deal since, according to him, there is a growing perception that “the deal has more skeletons in its closet”.
Sitharaman accused the previous Congress-led UPA government of not finalising the deal for years. “Why didn’t the agreement happen,” she said, recounting the processes that the discussions went through during the previous 10 years. “You get the agreement done man, not just talk”.
The National Democratic Alliance’s decision to enter a $8.7 billion government-to-government deal with France to buy 36 Rafale warplanes made by Dassault was announced in April 2015, with an agreement signed a little over a year later.
This replaced the previous United Progressive Alliance regime’s decision to buy 126 Rafale aircraft, 108 of which were to be made in India by the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.