Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Friday dismissed all allegations of corruption in the Rafale fighter jet deal and said it was “far better on every count” on pricing, processes and other factors and hit back at the Congress saying while the Bofors deal was a scam, the Rafale deal would bring Narendra Modi back to power in the coming elections.
In a spirited two-and-half hour reply in the Lok Saba to a debate on the deal in which she gave as much as she received from the opposition, she said Congress dilly-dallied on the deal and did not conclude it for over 10 years, putting national security to jeopardy while the BJP government finalised the deal in 14 months.
The reply came on a day when Congress claimed “fresh revelations” that Modi increased the benchmark price from euro 5.2 billion to euro 8.2 billion, which Sitharaman rejected it as false.
Getting emotional over Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s attack on her and the Prime Minister, she said he had called them liars.
“I come from a middle-class family and have my honour intact and the Prime Minister comes from a poor background and has come up the hard way. Being ‘naamdar’ does not give the right to make baseless allegations. Family name does not give right to call anyone a ‘chor’ (thief).
“It is not a prerogative of ‘khaandan’ (family) to protect themselves,” she asked, referring to Gandhi’s demand that he needed a chance to protec himself. My honour, PM’s honour have been insulted. Have you apologised. Nobody has the right to call this. Who gives him the right to call us like that,” she said.
“Bofors was a scam but Rafale is a decision taken in national interest. Congress lost its government due to Bofors. The Rafale deal will bring back Modi to have a new India, transforming India and to remove corruption” the minister said in a reply to a debate on the deal that was acrimonious and marked often by interruptions from the Opposition benches.
After the Defence Minister’s reply, Gandhi said he did not accuse her of being involved in the deal. “I had only accused the Prime Minister of direct involvement in the Rafale deal.” He also wanted to know a “‘yes or no’ to his question whether defence ministry had said that the PM should not be bypassing the defence establishment”.
Attacking the Congress for its failure to clinch the deal, she said there was a difference between defence dealings and dealing in defence, in veiled jibe at the Opposition party suggesting it was looking for kickbacks.
“There was a reason that the previous UPA government did not do anything required for the deal between 2006 and 2014. They (UPA) were dealing for 18 flyaway aircrafts. Why there was no agreement? You did not even buy a single aircraft. They did not intend buying. There is a difference between defence dealings and dealing in defence. We deal in defence as national security with priority,” she said.
Targeting UPA’s Defence Minister A.K. Antony, Sitharaman said he had stated in Februray, 2014 that there was “no money” to go ahead with deal for buying Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) under which 18 were to be procured in a flyaway condition from Dassault Aviation and the rest 108 to be manufactured by public sector undertaking HAL under transfer of technology.
She said the commercial bid of MMRCA “non-deal” was opened in 2011 and Dassault Aviation, which manufactures Rafale, became L1 but Antony directed independent monitoring to examine how the lowest bidder emerged.
She said the independent monitor cleared the process but they did not buy aircraft even after that and an order was passed to reexamine the approach and methodology of the contract negotiating committee.
“This is the kind of ‘khilwad’ (tampering). This was interference because somebody did not receive something from somewhere. The deal did not suit you. It did not give money. Their ‘treasury security’ was important not the national security,” she said.
Sitharaman said the first Rafale fighter jet will be delivered in September this year and the last aircraft will be delivered by 2022.
“We did not run for 10 years like you and we did it in 14 months,” she said.
Sitharaman also accused the Congress of shedding crocodile tears for HAL and accused the UPA for not doing anything to empower the public sector undertaking.
“Congress government gave 53 waivers to HAL while we have given contracts worth Rs 1 lakh crore,” she said referring to parliamentary standing committee reports on HAL which had criticised the company for non-performence.
Responding to the opposition questions on why only 36 aircrafts was finalised and not 126 as was proposed by the UPA govenment, the Minister said that the government followed the traditions of buying two squadrons aS it was urgently required given the fragile security environment.
“In emergency purchases, the IAF normally advises for two squadrons,” she said adding that in 1982, 1985 and 1987 when defence deals were done with France and Russia, two squadrons each were purchased.
She said that the entire campaign on Rafale by the Congress has been based on falsehood and the grand old party was repeatedly lying and misleading the people.
“Even unparliamentary words were used against the Prime Minister. Lies were spoken about foreign heads of governments,” she said apparently referring to the jibe at the Prime Minister by Congress President Rahul Gandhi that “Chowkidar chor hai”.
She said India wants peace but that cannot be at the cost of operational preparedness of the armed forces. She said India’s western and northern borders were highly sensitive and it was important to purchase the ammunition and platforms required.
She said between 2004 and 2015, China added 400 aircraft, including fourth generation J-10, J-11, J-16, SU-27 and even stealth fifth generation fighters. Pakistan, she said, had doubled the number of its main fighter aircraft.
The minister said that between 2002 and 2015, India’s squadron strength had gone down from 42 to 33, while that of the neighbour increased during most of the UPA government’s period and India kept moving at a snail’s pace.
She said that even in 2014, a “deadlock situation was created” over the MMRCA deal. “You leave the government without anything bought. There was no sense of urgency.”
Repeatedly terming the deal negotiated by the UPA government as a “non-deal”, she said it was not concluded. “I want to ask you why there was no deal. Today you are asking what was sense of urgency?”
“I allege, challenge they did not intend buying. National security was a wish list, it did not matter. For every AA, there is RV, there is Q also. Abbreviations may be easy, it is a double-edged sword. RV is not damad of PM, he is damad of the country, Q is somebody in whose lap none of us grew, somebody else grew.”
She accused Rahul Gandhi of shedding crocodile tears for Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, asking if he had visited HAL facility in his Amethi constituency.
She said the contract to procure 126 aircraft could not be concluded as Dassault was not giving guarantee for the aircraft to be made by HAL and it required more time to produce them.
She said there was no confirmation about Rs 526 crore, often cited by Rahul Gandhi, in official documents and asked “where they are getting it from”. She said it existed as a quote in a 2007 document.
The minister said Rs 670 crore was the basic price and even taking Rs 526 crore as base price, the deal done by NDA was 9 per cent cheaper than that by UPA government as the price under unfulfilled MMRCA deal would come to Rs 737 crore taking into account inflation and currency exchange fluctuation.