Setting the tone for an acrimonious debate with the BJP-led government over the Rafale fighter deal, Congress president Rahul Gandhi Wednesday targeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi, saying he “hides” in his room and does not have the “guts” to come to Parliament to respond to questions.
Outside the House, Gandhi told reporters: “I would very much like to debate with the Prime Minister one-on-one on Rafale, on anything about combat aircraft, on any strategic issue…”
“Just give me 20 minutes with the Prime Minister, debate one-on-one on Rafale, and then you decide what is what.”
Speaking in Lok Sabha, Gandhi demanded a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into the purchase of 36 Rafale aircraft from France. Alleging corruption in the deal, he referred to the Prime Minister’s interview telecast a day earlier: “He (Modi) spoke for 90 minutes in a staged interview but still did not answer questions on the Rafale issue.”
“We demand a JPC probe into matter. Why did you give this contract to your dear friend Mr AA and cost the exchequer Rs 30,000 crore?… The contract was snatched from HAL,” he said.
The “AA” reference was to industrialist Anil Ambani who was repeatedly named by Gandhi before Speaker Sumitra Mahajan told him not to name a person who was not a member of the House. He called Ambani a “dear friend” of Modi and a “failed businessman” and alleged that his firm was registered barely ten days before it got the offset contract from the makers of Rafale. Ambani has repeatedly denied the allegations.
There was high drama when Gandhi sought the Speaker’s permission to play an audio clip, purportedly of a Goa minister telling a person that former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had a Rafale file in his bedroom.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley called the clip “false and fabricated” and asked Gandhi if he could authenticate it. He said the Congress chief could face a privilege motion if the clip turned out to be fabricated.
Gandhi did not authenticate or play the clip. When he tried to read the transcript, the microphone was switched off. The Speaker later told him he could not be allowed to play the audio clip or read the transcript unless he personally authenticated its veracity. Jaitley said Gandhi was “scared” because he knew it was false. “This man lies, and lies repeatedly,” he said.
The Congress chief told the House: “It is very clear that the Prime Minister does not have the guts to come to Parliament and confront questions. The Defence Minister hides behind AIADMK members, the Prime Minister hides in his room… The PM should come to the House and give answers… the entire country is pointing at you, Mr Modi.”
He said the Supreme Court, in its order on a petition demanding a probe into the deal, had merely said it was not its jurisdiction. The questions over Rafale, he said, were on three pillars — “the process”, “the pricing” and “the paisa patronage”.
He alleged that all procedure was bypassed in the Rafale deal and the Prime Minister announced it without the knowledge of the Defence Minister.
“The entire procedure of the deal, from the beginning to the end, was bypassed. (Then) Defence Minister Mr Parrikar was asked whether he knew about the new deal that bypassed the old deal. Mr Parrikar himself said I have no idea about the new deal. The Defence Minister stated that the Cabinet Committee on Security, which is supposed to authorise any deal, gave no authorisation. This is a known fact. It has come out in a large number of newspapers but the Prime Minister does not have a comment,” he said.
He also asked why the government reduced the number of aircraft needed by the IAF from 126 to 36 if it was so concerned about the needs of the armed forces.
On the pricing issue, Gandhi alleged that after the Prime Minister went to France, a new deal was struck and the price per aircraft increased from Rs 526 crore to Rs 1,600 crore. “Why did the President of France, in a public statement, clearly say that the Prime Minister of India himself told me that the new price would be valid and the contract would be taken away from HAL and given to Shri Ambani at his behest?”
Gandhi said the pricing issue had also been flagged by Defence Ministry officials. “Another question to the Prime Minister: Is it not a fact that the new price you negotiated, Rs 1,600 crore, was objected to by the Defence Ministry officials,” he said.