Almost ten months before India and France inked the final agreement to purchase 36 Rafale aircraft in September 2016, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) had objected to “parallel” discussions conducted by the Prime Minister’s Office with Paris saying this “weakened the negotiating position of MoD and Indian Negotiating Team”.
According to a report Friday in The Hindu, a Defence Ministry note dated November 24, 2015, flagged the PMO’s discussions to then Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar. In the note, then Defence Secretary G Mohan Kumar wrote: “RM may pl see. It is desirable that such discussions be avoided by the PMO as it undermines our negotiating position seriously.” RM was a reference to Raksha Mantri.
Kumar Friday told The Indian Express that the noting was not about “parallel negotiations” but about “parallel viewpoints” and that the PMO had not interfered in the final negotiations.
In the 2015 MoD noting, Kumar was responding to a note by Deputy Secretary (Air-II) S K Sharma, who wrote: “We may advise PMO that any Officers who are not part of Indian Negotiating Team may refrain from having parallel parlays (parleys) with the officers of French Government. In case the PMO is not confident about the outcome of negotiations being carried out by the MoD, a revised modality of negotiations to be led by PMO at appropriate level may be adopted in the case.”
To these concerns of the MoD, Parrikar wrote: “It appears that PMO and French president’s office are monitoring the progress of the issue which was an outcome of the summit meeting. Para 5 appears to be an over reaction. Def Sec may resolve issue/matter in consultations with Pr. Sec to P.M.” Para 5 was a reference to Sharma’s note. Parrikar’s noting was put out by news agency ANI.
The Defence Secretary from May 2015 to May 2017 when the Rafale deal was signed, Kumar Friday said the parallel discussions by the PMO on the Rafale deal had nothing to do with price.
Referring to The Hindu report that the MoD objected to the PMO undermining the Rafale negotiations, Kumar said he had written the stated note in a particular context.
“It was not about parallel negotiations, but about parallel viewpoints. We told them that there was no need for such discussions. I have written the note in that particular context. There was nothing very serious about it. It was when the negotiations started and later all issues had been settled. No interference or anything of that sort happened from the PMO in the final negotiations.’’
He said parallel viewpoints mentioned in the note had nothing to do with the price issue. “The parallel viewpoints were related to a collateral guarantee which India wanted in the deal. We had expressed different opinions about that discussion. That’s all it was.’’
He said the note was written a year before the negotiations were finalised. “At the initial stage, there would be several teething problems, which have to be settled. It was written in that circumstance. The PMO said about parallel opinion about the collateral guarantee. There was no other issue. What I had expressed is a point of view which came at a particular time,’’ he said.
Kumar also said it was his duty to inform the minister. “Hence I wrote… It was only an internal matter and such discussions take place in offices. It was not meant for public debate. I had expressed my views very freely and I had the freedom to do so,’’ he said.
In September last year, The Indian Express reported that a senior MoD officer, who was part of the Contract Negotiations Committee (CNC), had raised questions about the Rafale deal’s benchmark price and put his objections on record. That officer was S K Sharma. He was then Joint Secretary & Acquisition Manager (Air) in the MoD and the one meant to initiate the note for the Cabinet’s approval.
Sources had confirmed to The Indian Express that the officer’s objections delayed the Cabinet note to approve the deal and its signing, which only happened after his objections were “overruled” by another senior MoD official, Director General (Acquisition).
Sharma’s note, as JS & AM (Air), was part of the Rafale deal file with the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), studying the deal. On Friday, The Hindu reported: “According to the Defence Ministry note, the details of the parallel negotiations conducted by the PMO came to the Ministry’s notice only from a letter of October 23, 2015 from General Stephen Reb, the head of the French Negotiating Team. The letter ‘made mention of 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, which took place on 20.10.2015’.”
“General Reb’s letter was brought to the notice of the PMO by the Defence Ministry. The head of the Indian Negotiating Team, Air Marshal S. B. P. Sinha, AVSM VM, Deputy Chief of Air Staff, also wrote to Mr. Ashraf. In his reply to Air Marshal Sinha on November 11, 2015, Mr. Ashraf ‘confirmed that he had held discussion with Mr Luis Vassy, Diplomatic Adviser to the French Minister of Defence,’ adding that Mr. Vassy ‘spoke to him on the advice of the French President’s office and the issues referred to General Reb’s letter were discussed’.”
The report also said that ‘the discussions between Diplomatic Adviser to the French Defence Minister and Joint Secretary to PM tantamount to parallel negotiations while the Indian Negotiating Team constituted by the Ministry of Defence is undertaking the process of formal negotiations with the French side’.”