The Hindu ’s exclusive story on Friday , based on documents of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) established that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) was directly negotiating with French officials on the controversial Rafale fighter plane deal. The report said officials of the MoD raised a red flag over what they called “parallel negotiations.” The government, the BJP and a section of the media have sought to pick holes in the story. The BJP’s official Twitter handle also launched an offensive against The Hindu .
The following are four reasons why the line of attack against The Hindu story on Rafale is not only shallow, but also implicates the Narendra Modi government further.
No single report on a topic is the last word on it. Investigative stories come in drips.
The government and the BJP said in their defence that The Hindu did not publish the handwritten note by the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. The platform that published Mr. Parrikar’s note — ANI — did not publish the entire file, so by the same logic, they can be accused of hiding something. The fact is that everyone publishes what they can get and what they think is relevant.
Carl Bernstein, who along with Bob Woodward broke the Watergate scandal said this about how it happens, at the White House Correspondents Dinner on April 29, 2017. “….Incremental reporting is essential. We wrote more than 200 stories in Watergate. Whenever I’d say, “let’s go for the big enchilada” or whatever, Bob would say, “here’s what we know now and are ready to put in the paper.” And then, inevitably, one story led to another and another and the larger tale expanded because of this reportorial dynamic. The best obtainable version of the truth became repeatedly clearer. More developed and understandable. We’re reporters. Not judges. Not legislators. What the government or citizens or judges do with the information we’ve developed is not our part of the process nor our objective.”
Anyone interested in the entire truth must dig for more, rather than seek to question the truth The Hindu has brought out. Each report, each day should try to bring “the best obtainable version of the truth.” That may not be entire truth, but that is an eminently acceptable benchmark for good journalism.
Parrikar note implicates, not absolves, the PMO
Contrary to what the defenders of the government says, the note written by Mr. Parrikar does not absolve the PMO of anything. He wrote, “It appears PMO and French President office are monitoring the progress of the issue which was an outcome of the summit meeting. Para 5 appears to be an over reaction. Defence secretary (G. Mohan Kumar) may resolve the matter in consultation with principal secretary to PM.”
By using the word “appears” twice, he is not vouching for the propriety of the PMO’s action or contesting the MoD officials’ concern regarding the PMO’s “parallel negotiations.” That too, only a particular paragraph “appears” to be “an over reaction.” Mr. Parrikar, therefore, by deduction, is broadly in agreement with the concerns.
What is para 5? In para-5, the official suggests that the MoD ask the PMO to lay off the negotiations, or the MoD be relieved of that duty. This, Mr. Parrikar found, to be ‘over-reaction.’ He did not note any concerns with paragraph four, for instance, which said: “The discussions between Diplomatic Adviser to the French Defence Minister and Joint Secretary to PM tantamount to parallel negotiation.”
So, Mr. Parrikar agreed to that view perhaps? So what does he do? He wants the defence secretary to deal with the PMO, which by implication is bailing himself out of the loop. In all this, far from absolving the PMO, Mr. Parrikar has implicated the PMO.
PMO role in the negotiations hidden from the SC
Defenders of the government/BJP have said there is nothing more that the SC can examine even after new revelations by The Hindu . While it is now established that the PMO was playing a direct role in negotiations, the government had not revealed this to the apex court that rejected a plea for an investigation.
The government put the entire onus of the outcome of the negotiations on the INT, and told the SC that it “completed its negotiations and arrived at better terms relating to price, delivery and maintenance as compared to the MMRCA offer of M/s Dassault Aviation... The INT report indicated better terms and conditions arrived at as a result of negotiations as compared to 126 MMRCA case and achievements of Negotiating Team.” With the government now admitting to the PMO role, it is liable to further examination by the SC to decide whether the court decision was prejudiced.
PMO role is not supervisory or of oversight; it is blindsiding the principal ministry
An ingenious argument has been forwarded by many that it is within the PMO’s remit to oversee and supervise the functioning of all ministries. Which makes perfect sense and nobody can quarrel with it. Only that in this case, that is not what the PMO does. Supervision would have involved the Principal Secretary or the NSA seeking to know from the MoD officials on the progress, guiding them, pushing them to move faster etc.
Here, what the PMO has done is to keep the entire MoD blindsided on an issue that is directly under their purview and start a parallel process with a foreign government.