A senior official who served at the Elysee Palace, Paris in 2015 during the meeting between visiting Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the then French President Francois Hollande, confirms that minutes of their meeting on 10 April of that year exist in the French President’s office.
It was at this meeting that the ongoing negotiations for purchasing 126 Rafale fighters from France was abandoned, public sector HAL was dropped and Reliance Defence Ltd. allegedly foisted on Dassault as the Offset partner.
The former Elysee Palace official maintains that there would have been two ‘note takers’ during the meeting from the French side, one from the President’s office and the other from the French foreign ministry.
The minutes of this meeting assumes importance because of what President Hollande said to the French investigative digital publication, Mediapart. Asked why Dassault and the French Government accepted Reliance with no experience in aviation as the Offset partner, he said, “We did not have a say in that. It was the Indian government that proposed this service group, and Dassault who negotiated with Ambani. We did not have a choice, we took the interlocutor who was given to us.”
The minutes would go a long way to prove the correctness of Hollande’s remarks. But the French are unlikely to release these, arguing that it could adversely affect French national interest. The French fear cancellation of the Rafale deal like the AgustaWestland helicopter order was scrapped by India following charges that the company had paid commission to Indian politicians and sections of media.
Parliamentary Standing Committees on Defence, headed by the BJP MP Kalraj Mishra, or the Standing Committee on External Affairs, headed by the Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, could ask for the minutes maintained by the Indian side.
The committees could also summon erstwhile Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar, now working with Tatas, and the former Indian Ambassador to France, Arun Singh, who retired from service in 2016, and examine them on their first-hand knowledge of what transpired at the Modi-Hollande meeting. They could be asked whether they by any chance were privy to Prime Minister Modi’s intentions and if so how?
The joint statement issued by France and India on 10 April 2015 claimed the new deal would be “on terms that would be better than conveyed by Dassault Aviation as part of a separate process underway (meaning the arrangement worked out by the Manmohan Singh government)”. Parliament has a right to ask if this is really true.
The meeting would also have been attended by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. However, it is not clear if a Parliamentary Committee can summon a serving NSA.
The chances of the Lok Sabha speaker scuttling an inquiry by a standing committee are high, given the political sensitivity involved and her track record. At the same time such action will reinforce the view that Narendra Modi has something to hide.