In 150-min Rafale rebuttal, Nirmala Sitharaman responds to Congress with Bofors barb

Prior to the resumption of the debate, Congress president Rahul Gandhi told reporters in the Parliament House complex that his party would initiate a probe into the deal if it came to power in 2019.
Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman speaks during the discussion on issues relating to Rafale deal, in the Lok Sabha in New Delhi.(PTI Photo)
Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman speaks during the discussion on issues relating to Rafale deal, in the Lok Sabha in New Delhi.(PTI Photo)
Updated on Jan 04, 2019 11:24 PM IST
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New Delhi | By HT Correspondent

Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Friday dismissed allegations of wrongdoing and corruption in the Rafale jet fighter deal and sought to answer questions posed by the Congress and its president Rahul Gandhi on the purchase, but the latter asserted that his party would launch a criminal investigation into the Rs 59,000 crore transaction if it came to power and also insisted that the minister had not answered any of his questions.

In a 150-minute speech, one of the longest in Parliament in recent memory, Sitharaman said that while the Bofors field gun deal of the 1980s was a scam that sank the Congress, the Rafale purchase was in the national interest and would bring Prime Minister Narendra Modi back to power in 2019.

In addition to defending the National Democratic Alliance’s government-to-government deal with France to buy 36 Rafale fighter aircraft, Sitharaman alleged that the Congress had stalled an earlier transaction to buy the planes and ignored national security when in power because it “didn’t get the money”, ignoring “national security for its treasury security”.

“The defence ministry has been functioning without dalals (middlemen) during five years of Modi,” she said.

Watch: Nirmala Sitharaman’s point-by-point rebuttal on Congress’ Rafale charge

The discussion on the Rafale deal, which began on Wednesday, could not be concluded on Thursday because of a ruckus created by protesting All India Anna Dravidra Munnetra Kazagham and Telugu Desam Party members who were later suspended by speaker Sumitra Mahajan. Intervention by finance minister Arun Jaitley on the issue also took place on Wednesday.

Prior to the resumption of the debate, Gandhi told reporters in the Parliament House complex that his party would initiate a probe into the deal if it came to power in 2019.

Accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi of running away from the debate in Parliament, the Congress president posed a series of questions to Sitharaman.

“Who decided to raise the price of the aircraft from ?526 crore to ?1,600 crore? Whose decision was this? Was this an air force decision, was it the defence ministry’s decision or was it the Prime Minister’s decision? There has to be a clear-cut answer, no confusion,” he said.

The NDA government’s deal to buy 36 fighter jets replaced an earlier UPA one to buy 126 (18 in a flyaway condition and 118 to be assembled locally) . It has become controversial with the Congress claiming the deal didn’t follow due procedure, is costlier than the previous deal, and was done to help Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence strike an offset deal with Rafale maker Dassault Aviation. The government has insisted that the previous deal was not a viable one and would have never been closed, that offset deals are only between the aircraft maker and a local partner with the state not being involved, and that it paid less for the aircraft.

The Supreme Court in December ruled that it believed due process had been followed and that it would not go into the pricing issue -- effectively endorsing the government line. However, there were errors in the court’s judgement, which the Congress and the petitioners in the case have alleged was because of the government misleading the court. On Jan 2, the petitioners, former Union ministers Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and advocate Prashant Bhushan filed a review petition in the top court asking it to review at its judgment given the mistakes in it.

The court’s order hasn’t discouraged the Congress from continuing to insist that a Joint Parliamentary Committee investigate the Rafale purchase. The party made Rafale a campaign issue in recent assembly polls -- it won the states of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) -- and will likely do so in the 2019 parliamentary polls as well.

“You didn’t conclude the deal, because it didn’t suit you. The deal didn’t get you money,” Sitharaman said, attacking the Congress. United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi was present in the House during her reply.

“They did not intend to buy the aircraft till something else was done. There is something different between defence deal and dealing in defence,” Sitharaman told the House.

Countering the opposition’s charge, she said it was the Indian Air Force (IAF) which suggested that the government buy two squadrons or 36 Rafale jets in fly-away condition instead of 18.

Under the deal finalised by the NDA government, the delivery of first Rafale aircraft will take place in 2019, while the last of the 36 jets will be delivered in 2022, the minister said.

On pricing, Sitharaman said there was no formal price noting by the Congress of ?526 crore as the (old) deal price. But the price negotiated by the NDA government is 9% lower than what was negotiated by UPA.

“Comparing the cost of Rs 526 crore with Rs 1,600 crore is like comparing apples to oranges. The cost quoted in 2007, will it remain the same in 2016, because there is escalation cost and there is exchange rate variation,” she asked.

The defence minister informed the House that the price of the basic aircraft cannot be compared with price of weaponised aircraft.

On Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) not getting the offset contract, Sitharaman alleged that the Congress was only shedding “crocodile tears” as it had done nothing while in power to increase the capacity and capability of the state-owned planemaker.

The BJP-led NDA government on the other hand has given Rs 1 lakh crore worth of contracts to HAL, she said.

Sitharaman’s speech drew praise from the Prime Minister, BJP chief Amit Shah and the finance minister.

“Defence Minister @nsitharaman’s speech in the Parliament demolishes the campaign of calumny on Rafale. Must watch!” Modi tweeted.

Jaitley wrote in his tweet: “Well done! Smt. Nirmala Sitharaman ji, for an outstanding performance. You demolished the fake campaign. We are all proud of your performance. @nsitharaman”

Gandhi later told reporters that Sitharaman had given a long speech in Parliament but did not answer any of his posers on the deal.

“The defence minister did not answer any of the questions I asked. She did not even take the name of Anil Ambani,” he said.

Sitharaman, however, did refer to Ambani as AA (as Gandhi said he would refer to the businessman on Wednesday). “For every AA there’s an RV and also a Q,” she said, possibly referring to Robert Vadra, the brother-in-law of Rahul Gandhi, and the late Ottavio Quattrocchi, the alleged middleman in the Bofors case.

Reliance Defence has denied any wrongdoing in the offset deal.

The Congress chief said he put a question to the defence minister towards the end of the debate and asked her to reply with a yes or no.

“I asked that after a long negotiation process, those people who participated in that negotiations -- Air Force chief, defence minister, secretaries, Air Force officials -- when the prime minister did a ‘bypass surgery’... did the Air Force people object,” he said.

“And you saw that instead of answering this, the defence minister started doing drama that ‘I have been insulted, I was called a liar’.”

Towards the end of her speech, a visibly emotional Sitharaman lashed out at Gandhi for calling Modi a “chor (thief)” and her a liar. “I don’t have a khandaan (dynasty) to boast of. I come from an ordinary background, I come with my honour intact, PM comes from an economically backward family... .”

Gandhi said the minister was attempting to mislead people “It was a straight question and without answering that she ran away. The Prime Minister cannot come to Parliament. The Goa chief minister is saying I have a file and I will get back at the Prime Minister,” he said.

His reference was to an unverified tape released on January 2, ahead of the crucial debate on Rafale in the Lok Sabha, by the Congress that purportedly features Goa’s health minister Vishwajit Rane telling an unidentified person that chief minister Manohar Parrikar had told the state cabinet that Rafale files were “lying” inside his “bedroom.” Parrikar, who was defence minister when the Rafale deal was signed, has described the tape as a fabrication; Rane said it had been doctored.

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