On the day the Supreme Court was to announce its decision whether the Centre must reveal details of the Rafale deal and the comparative prices during the UPA and NDA rule, the Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman gave interviews to two media houses on the Rafale deal. The Supreme Court did ask the Centre to provide details of the decision-making process in deal in a sealed cover.
In the interviews to both Economic Times and The Hindu, Sitharaman has claimed that the criticism on ordering just 36 jets is misplaced because the remainder of the original 126 aircraft will be manufactured locally under a new ‘Make in India’ process.
“36 will come in flyaway condition. As for the rest, we have issued a ‘Request for Information’ [for 114 fighter jets]. We’ve got seven companies that have shown interest and are now talking to them. So, the competition has been widened. There’s nothing to support the conclusion that we’ve reduced our requirement,” pointed out Sitharaman.
According to Sitharaman, as a result of this RFI for 114 jets, the companies will decide who they want to join hands with. “Under the strategic partnership, we have already come up with two deals — one for the Navy, one for the Air Force,” said Sitharaman.
Interestingly, in September 2018 in an interview to Indian Express, Nirmala Sitharaman has said that the government chose to procure only 36 Rafale fighter aircraft from France in 2015, instead of the 126 being negotiated by the previous government, as infrastructure and other technical requirements of the Indian Air Force (IAF) do not allow for greater induction.
Sitharaman has also claimed that the defence ministry has no middlemen walking here or influencing or trying to influence our decisions. “With the guidance of the Prime Minister all of us are taking a call transparently,” said Sitharaman
While talking in circles when asked if the benchmark price of Rafale jet was changed, Sitharaman said “Those details are in the records.”
The defence minister claimed that all due processes were followed before the Rafale jet deal with Reliance was announced. “I don’t know how you’re concluding that the Foreign Secretary, the then Defence Minister and others were not in the picture. They were very much in it. You think the Prime Minister and the President of France sit and write down the joint statement and press release? No, it is the officials who do it. So, what makes you conclude they were kept out?” questioned Sitharaman emphatically.
This is despite the fact that just a day before PM Modi’s visit to France, then foreign secretary S Jaishankar had said, “In terms of Rafale, my understanding is that there are discussions underway between the French company, our Ministry of Defence, the HAL which is involved in this. These are ongoing discussions.” This shows that until April 8, 2015, HAL was officially still a part of the deal and on April 10, PM Modi went to Paris and announced the purchase of 36 Rafale aircrafts under the Inter-Governmental Agreement.
Sitharaman has also claimed that the defence ministry has no middlemen walking here or influencing or trying to influence our decisions. “With the guidance of the Prime Minister all of us are taking a call transparently,” said Sitharaman.
In the same breath, Sitharaman, who is set to visit France in a couple of days, has said that she still doesn’t know her schedule or if she will visit Dasault facilities during the visit. “I don’t know (if I will visit Dassault facilities). I only have the first sketch of the brief. The appointment with the President is not finalised yet. It is likely that it will happen. There is no special context. France has been maintaining a very special relationship with India on defence matters. There are so many agenda points for our discussion,” said Sitharaman.