A media report on the Rafale deal provides new ammunition to the Opposition. The government may not be able to escape this debate so easily on the election trail.
- A report released by The Hindu has given details of a note by the Defence Ministry (MoD) on the Rafale Deal
- The note reveals that officials of MoD were concerned about parallel negotiations by the PMO with French counterparts on the deal.
- The government has called the report one-sided, as it did not talk about the Defence Minister’s response.
- On the other hand, the Opposition has got new ammunition to target the Government, in particular the PMO on the Rafale negotiations
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not responded to Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s demand for a debate on Rafale. But he did mention the issue during his spirited defence of the government in Parliament yesterday, when he took the attack to the Congress, “I want to say it on the floor of Parliament that the Indian National Congress doesn’t want our armed forces to be strong. They don’t want our security apparatus to be strong. Which companies are they bidding for that they are acting so shamefully… They are surprised that there is a defence deal without kickbacks… they assume that a defence deal cannot happen without commission.”
However, the political slugfest between the government and the opposition on the Rafale deal does not seem to be dying any time soon. A defence ministry note released by The Hindu casts new doubts on the possible interference of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in negotiations for Rafale. Congress This gets more incriminating as the Congress President Rahul Gandhi had alleged several times earlier that the PMO had undermined negotiations in the Rafale deal.
While the opposition used the report to corner the government in Parliament, the Union Defence Minister Ms Nirmala Sitharaman defended the government’s stand. She reiterated that the Congress was “flogging a dead horse”, and the newspaper had not published complete facts on the note, referring particularly to the response of the then Defence Minister Manoj Parrikar.
TURF WAR BETWEEN PMO & MOD?
The controversial report released by The Hindu claims that the Defence Ministry (MoD) had raised strong objections to the parallel negotiations between the PMO with the French government on the deal. Apparently, the ministry had stated in a note dated November 24, 2015, that these parallel discussions had “weakened the negotiating position of MoD and the Indian Negotiating Team” and were contradictory to the MoD’s stand. The article shares the details of the note, which is now in the open.
It also stated in the note, which was addressed to then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar that the ministry could advise the PMO that any officers who aren’t a part of the negotiating team may “refrain from having parallel parlays [parleys] with the officers of French Government”. The note also suggested that if the PMO was not confident about the negotiations by the MoD, it may lead a “a revised modality of negotiations” at the “appropriate level”.
It also states that the position taken by the PMO was contradictory to that of the MoD. The then Defence Secretary G. Mohan Kumar had written on the note, “RM (Defence Minister) may pl. see. It is desirable that such discussions be avoided by the PMO as it undermines our negotiating position seriously.”
This report contradicts the government’s submission to the Supreme Court of India, which stated that Rafale negotiations were done by a seven-member team led by the Deputy Chief of Air Staff. There is no mention of the PMO playing a role.
The note mentions how the MoD came to know about the parallel negotiations from a letter by General Stephen Reb, the head of the French Negotiating Team, on October 23, 2015. It mentioned “a telephonic conversation between Shri Jawed Ashraf, Joint Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office and Mr. Luis Vassy, Diplomatic Adviser to the French Minister of Defence”.
This adds to the interview with former President Hollande, who had told AFP in September 2018 that the Reliance Group had figured as part of a ‘new formula’ with respect to negotiations over the Rafale deal. Moreover, it has been reported that National Security Advisor Ajit Doval had also negotiated with the French counterparts.
The Defence Ministry note cited an example to prove the point of undermining its negotiating position. It stated that General Reb had referred to the discussions with Joint Secretary to the PM and commented that “no Bank Guarantee is provisioned in the supply protocol and the letter of comfort provides sufficient assurances of the proper implementation of the supply protocol by the industrial suppliers.”
This, the note stated, was “contrary to the position taken by the MoD and conveyed by Indian Negotiating Team that the commercial offer should be preferably backed by Sovereign/Government Guarantee or otherwise by Bank Guarantee.” The stand of the PMO was also contrary with respect to the arbitration agreement.
Mr Parrikar wrote on top of the note that the PMO and the French President’s Office were “monitoring the progress of the issue which was an outcome of the summit meeting”. He had also written that the concerns expressed in paragraph 5 by G Mohan Kumar, appear ” to be an over-reaction”, and the “Defence Secretary may resolve the matter in consultation with Principal Secretary to PM“.
BOTH SIDES OF THE ARGUMENT
“Please see the then defence minister statements… See how this publication conveniently chooses not to quote the then defence minister… Then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikarji replied to that MoD note that ‘remain calm, nothing to worry, everything is going alright…. If the newspaper wanted to bring out the truth, they would have approached the defence ministry and done a thorough check. They would also have approached the then Raksha Mantri (Parrikar) for his views on it. The said paper has gone ahead and published a report without any facts to back it.”
Nirmala Sitharaman, Defence Minister
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) 8 February 2019
In the light of today’s expose on Rafale, “independent” CBI shud raid PMO, seize all the files related to Rafale and make arrests just like they raided my office and residence and Kolkatta police commissioner.
— Arvind Kejriwal (@ArvindKejriwal) 8 February 2019
This confirms that Rafale was a scam. Modi govt accepts that the wires in this scam go straight to the top man. The PM must take responsibility for the loss to the exchequer, violation of procedure to get far fewer fighter jets than what Air Force wanted. All just to help cronies https://t.co/v4u4Ba2TlD
— Sitaram Yechury (@SitaramYechury) 8 February 2019
The then Defence Minister @manoharparrikar was clueless about the progress of negotiations. All he could say was “IT APPEARS that @PMOIndia & French President’s office are monitoring the progress”. He had no direct knowledge of progress & passed the buck back to the PMO. pic.twitter.com/cJiiQg8RuU
— Omar Abdullah (@OmarAbdullah) 8 February 2019
“If you look at transaction of business rules of the Government of India, the administrative head of a ministry is the secretary of the department. Negotiations are not a policy matter, ministers look at policy matters and administrative matters fall to the domain of the secretary. In this instance, Defence Minister had no business, did not have statutory prerogative of over-ruling.”
Manish Tiwari, Leader, Indian National Congress
“Sometimes it looks like some people especially senior leaders of Congress have got ‘supari’ to defame and misguide on the sensitive issue of national security. Congress situation is ‘na izzat ki chinta na fikar kisi apmaan ki, jai bolo beimaan ki‘.”
MA Naqvi, Union minorities affairs Minister
“The Supreme Court has observed that there was no scam in the Rafale defence deal. Despite that they (the Congress) are trying to convert a lie into truth by repeatedly making false allegations. However, this is not going to happen.We charge that Rahul Gandhi and the Congress are hell-bent on seeing the Rafale deal cancelled.”
Prakash Javadekar, Union Human Resource Development Minister
“Negotiations are not just for pricing but other things also. It was about sovereign guarantees and general terms and conditions.”
Mohan Kumar, Former Defence Secretary (during the Rafale negotiations)
DKODING THE ENDGAME
The government’s argument is that the report by The Hindu was done with a one-sided agenda, which is why he did not mention the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s response.
On the other hand, the note released by The Hindu certainly brings a new twist to the Rafale debate. Even though the Defence Secretary has clarified that the note was about some other terms and conditions, it gives a lot of ammunition to the opposition on two fronts – one that the PMO was at loggerheads with the Defence Ministry and that the government had concealed information from the Supreme Court in this regard.
It is clear that the government needs to provide answers on these questions, and why the intervention of the PMO was necessitated in this deal. It remains to be seen whether this debate will be taken back to the legal process, but it will certainly be taken, as part of the ongoing perception battle, to the election trail.