Less than two months after the Supreme Court dismissed four petitions seeking a court-monitored probe into alleged irregularities in the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter aircraft from France, a political firestorm erupted Friday after Congress president Rahul Gandhi, citing a report in The Hindu newspaper, said the Ministry of Defence had objected to “parallel discussions” conducted by the Prime Minister’s Office with Paris since it “weakened the negotiating position” of the Ministry and the Indian negotiating team.
With the spotlight returning to the Rafale deal ahead of the Lok Sabha elections and rocking proceedings in the House, the government hit back. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman attacked the Congress: “They are flogging a dead horse… when periodically, PMO enquires about the progress of any work (it) cannot be construed as interference.”
Addressing a press conference in the morning, Rahul Gandhi said he was also addressing members of the armed forces: “We have been saying that there should be a JPC, there should be an inquiry. Now it is crystal clear… it is open-and-shut that the Defence Ministry itself is saying that the Prime Minister is conducting parallel negotiations. (Former French President Francois) Hollande (had) said Narendra Modi came to me and he told me that HAL should be removed and Anil Ambani should be given the contract. The Defence Ministry has proved it. That what Hollande had said was the truth and Narendra Modi is guilty in the Rafale matter.”
Gandhi alleged that the government lied to the Supreme Court. “If Supreme Court had this paper work, you think the Supreme Court would have given the judgment that they gave. This was withheld from the Supreme Court… So that entire judgment is also in question,” he said.
Asked about the Prime Minister referring to Congress attacks on him as “ulta chor chowkidar ko daante”, Gandhi said: “He is talking about himself. He has got a dual personality. What is that? Does that mean he has got two personalities — chor and chowkidar. Is that what he is saying… And he talks to himself at night, one day he becomes the chowkidar and one day he becomes the chor. Schizophrenia? Is that what is happening?”
To a query on the Enforcement Directorate investigation against his brother-in-law Robert Vadra, he said: “You can take action against whosoever you want… You are in the government… You do whatever inquiry against (former Finance Minister P) Chidambaram you want. He will face any inquiry. You do inquiry against anybody you want, anybody in the Congress party. No problem… but please do inquiry on this… you enforce the law on Robert Vadra and Chidambaram and all others… But you give a reply on the Rafale matter also.”
In Lok Sabha, Sitharaman said the issue being raised was based on a newspaper report which had carried in detail the comments made by the then Defence Secretary “for the attention of the then Raksha Mantri”.
“It should have also put the reply of the Raksha Mantri which was also given in writing,” she said, adding, “If the newspaper wanted to bring the truth out, I would have thought that it was incumbent upon that newspaper to put the reply of the then Raksha Mantri also on record.”
“The then Defence Minister, Shri (Manohar) Parrikar had very clearly said in response to the file noting of the then Defence Secretary to ‘remain calm, there is nothing to worry, things are going all right’,” she said.
Sitharaman maintained that “during my reply on 4th January, 2019, I had very clearly pointed out this particular allegation also about the suspected interference by the PMO and gave a reply… that when periodically, PMO enquires about the progress of any work cannot be construed as interference .”
She sought to know from the Congress “what was the interference by the National Advisory Council (NAC) led by Shrimati Sonia Gandhi… Did she interfere? Was that interference? If that was interference then talk about it. At that time, the NAC was running the PMO. Was that an interference? Will that be reported?… I want to question the ethics of the newspaper and the ethics of the Opposition. Did The Hindu newspaper also put on top ‘Chowkidar chor hai’. You have added that. How right is that? How ethical is that?”.
“The newspaper and the Opposition parties are flogging a dead horse. In other words, they are, like what the Hon. Prime Minister said yesterday, playing into the hands of multinational corporations and with vested interests keeping the issue alive… They are not interested in the Indian Air Force getting powerful. They are not interested in the Indian Air Force becoming empowered. They are working to the tunes of multinational corporate warfare. They are damaging this country. I charge them with that offence,” she said.
Outside the House, Rajya Sabha MP Anil Baluni slammed The Hindu report for not carrying Parrikar’s response to the notings of Ministry officials.
“It conceals what is vital. In fact, it conceals in this case, the noting of the then Defence Minister, Shri Manohar Parrikar. In his noting, the Defence Minister describes the operative paragraph of the note as an ‘over-reaction’. He goes on to advise the Defence Secretary to resolve the matter through discussions with the PMO. When looked at in entirety, this note becomes a routine note without any special significance,” Baluni said.