The Lok Sabha on Friday witnessed sharp exchanges between Congress president Rahul Gandhi and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who asserted: “Bofors took the Congress down but Rafale will bring Modi back”.
In her reply to the debate on the Rafale deal, the Minister sought to not only provide a point-by-point rebuttal to the Congress’s charges, but also initiated a counter attack.
Charging the Congress with ignoring national security, she accused the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government of ‘stalling’ the Rafale deal because “it didn’t get money”.
The draft report of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) on all capital defence acquisitions, including the 36 aircraft Rafale deal, was with the Defence Ministry, which was preparing its responses to the CAG’s draft observations, she said.
The basic price of the aircraft as negotiated by the UPA would have amounted to ₹737 crore at today’s rates as against the ₹670 crore at which the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government was buying the jets, she stated.
The Minister further claimed that the government had condensed the delivery time by five months; the first Rafale jet would land in the country in September and the last one by 2022.
Ms. Sitharaman accused the Congress of misleading the country and claimed that there had been ‘no deal’ concluded during the UPA government’s term. The opposition party was shedding ‘crocodile tears’ for Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and insulting Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a hug and a wink and by referring to her as a ‘liar’.
She also said for every AA (a term coined by Mr Gandhi to call industrialist Anil Ambani), there was an RV (a reference to Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra ) and a ‘Q’ during Congress governments.
An equally combative Mr. Gandhi said he didn’t blame Ms. Sitharaman or her predecessor, Manohar Parrikar, but only Mr. Modi, whom he accused of having committed a ‘bypass surgery’ of defence procurement procedures.
Later, speaking to reporters outside the Parliament House, Mr. Gandhi accused the Defence Minister of running away by not replying to specific questions raised by him and asserted that there would be a “criminal investigation into the Rafale deal once the government changes in 2019 elections”.
Earlier during her reply, Ms. Sitharaman countered the Congress chief’s charge that the Prime Minister ‘unilaterally ordered’ 36 aircraft and claimed it was the Indian Air Force which suggested that the government buy two squadrons or 36 Rafale jets in ‘fly-away’ condition as against the UPA’s 18 planes.
“You are misleading the country by saying the NDA government reduced 126 Rafale jets to 36,” she said. “The Congress was supposed to buy 18 in fly-away condition, the NDA raised that to 36.”
The Minister said comparing the cost of ₹526 crore with ₹1,600 crore was like comparing apples to oranges. “Will the cost quoted in 2007 remain the same in 2016, because there is escalation cost and there is exchange rate variation.”
The Minister also asserted that the government had given contracts worth ₹1 lakh crore to HAL.
AIADMK leader and Deputy Speaker M. Thambidurai too sought to know why the government had allowed the offset contract to be given to the Anil Ambani-led Reliance group instead of HAL.
Observing that the Anil Ambani group was selected as one of the offset partners by Rafale’s manufacturer Dassault Aviation, the Minister said the very same group had earlier obtained 53 waivers and concessions during the Congress-led UPA regime.
An emotional Ms. Sitharaman also accused the Congress chief of “insulting people with humble backgrounds”.
“Nobody has a right to call me or the Prime Minister a thief and a liar.. We all come from normal backgrounds...I come from a middle class. The Prime Minister comes from a humble background. The Prime Minister’s name is untarnished, he is not corrupt. I have my honour intact,” said a visibly angry Defence Minister.
Allowed by the Speaker to seek a clarification to the Minister’s reply — uncommon for Lok Sabha proceedings — Mr. Gandhi reiterated that the former French President, Francois Hollande, had publicly stated that Mr. Anil Ambani’s name had been given to the French side by Mr. Modi. He also said that the current French President Emanuel Macron had told him that the price was not a secret.
“When the Prime Minister had done a bypass surgery [of the earlier deal] did the officials object to it or not? Can you reply with a Yes or No,” Mr. Gandhi asked.