The Congress on Tuesday upped the ante on its Rafale battle with the government, with senior leader A K Antony accusing Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman of suppressing facts and making false claims.
The party is set to approach the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) on the matter on Wednesday, and the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) later. It asked why the government was purchasing only 36 jets instead of 126, if it was procuring the aircraft at a lower price than the one negotiated by the UPA government.
Antony, the former defence minister, asked the government to publish the cost of the UPA’s deal for 126 aircraft and the 36-aircraft deal entered into by the Narendra Modi government, as well as the price per aircraft, and let the nation decide “who is correct”.
He also reiterated the demand for a JPC probe. “Why is the government afraid when it will have a majority in the JPC… that means they have something to hide,” he said, as he rebutted some of the recent charges levelled by Sitharaman. “Who authorised Prime Minister Narendra Modi to bring down the number of fighter aircraft from 126 to 36,” he asked.
Antony said Modi made the announcement in 2015, at a time when the negotiation for procuring 126 aircraft was in the final stage. As per the Defence Procurement Procedures (DPP), he said, the Defence Acquisition Council, chaired by the Defence Minister and consisting of the three service chiefs, is the only authorised body to decide the number and clear the tender.
“Isn’t Modi’s decision a clear cut violation of the DPP? After signing the purchase agreement for 36 Rafale aircraft in April 2015, the Modi government cancelled the 126 Rafale aircraft contract on June 24, 2015. Isn’t this again a violation of the DPP,” asked Antony.
Saying that the defence minister, finance minister and law minister have argued that the deal entered into by the NDA government was cheaper than the one negotiated by the UPA, he asked: “Then why did the government purchase only 36 aircraft instead of 126”.
Rejecting Sitharaman’s statement that an unprecedented intervention by Antony in 2013, when the cost negotiation committee was giving final touches to the deal, was the final nail in the coffin, he said: “Her allegations are completely false and she is deliberately suppressing the facts.”
“Contract negotiations were almost over and when the proposal was sent to the finance ministry, it felt that the ‘life cycle cost concept’ is a new concept and they cannot support it. Then the UPA government also received objections and reservations from various leaders, including a senior BJP MP, about the life cycle cost calculation. The Indian Air Force was insisting on finalising the deal, and I then directed that the negotiations be continued, but take it to the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) only after the disputes are settled,” he said.
Antony criticised Sitharaman for stating that the UPA deal collapsed as Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) did not have the capability to produce 108 aircraft in India.
“This claim by Sitharaman is completely false… HAL has a standing of 75 years and is the only aerospace manufacturing company that can indigenously manufacture fighter aircraft in India. It has manufactured 4,060 aircraft of 31 types… It is unfortunate that the defence minister is trying to tarnish such a nationally and internationally reputed public sector undertaking….If HAL does not have the required capability, please let us know which company in India has the capability to manufacture fighter aircraft,” he said.
Asked if the Congress would approach the CVC or CAG, Congress leader Randeep Surjewala earlier said the CAG and CVC are “bounden by their constitutional duty to look at the entire deal and all its papers, whether or not somebody moves them. The Congress party, at an appropriate time, also intends to move an appropriate petition before the CVC and CAG to expeditiously adhere to their constitutional duties.”