How much protocol was broken in the Rafale deal? It was always clear that Prime Minister Narendra Modi was breaking from convention in announcing the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets, instead of the 136 India was planning to buy in 2015, but a new report suggests that the upending of formal processes did not end there. The Hindu revealed on Friday that a defence ministry note said that there were “parallel discussions” between the Prime Minister’s Office and the French government, which had “weakened the negotiating position” of the Indian negotiating team.

“We may advise PMO that any Officers who are not part of the Indian Negotiating Team may refrain from having parallel parlays with the officers of the French Government,” said the note, signed by S. K. Sharma, Deputy Secretary (Air-II), and endorsed by the Joint Secretary & Acquisition Manager (Air) and the Director General (Acquisition) in the Ministry.

Indeed, the note even includes a hand-written comment from the then Defence Secretary, G Mohan Kumar: “RM [Raksha Mantri] may pl. see. It is desirable that such discussions be avoided by the PMO as it undermines our negotiating position seriously.”

PMO interference

To recap: In 2015, Modi ended several years of negotiations with French manufacturer Dassault for 136 Rafale jets, and suddenly announced that India would be buying 36 of the planes directly from the French government instead. The decision has proven to be extremely controversial, with questions raised about whether India overpaid for the jets and if Modi broke protocol to benefit Anil Ambani’s Reliance group, which was then picked as Dassault’s main Indian partner.

The note in the Hindu makes it clear that officials in the defence ministry continued to have concerns about the prime minister’s office interfering, even as an official negotiation team was attempting to pin down the specific details. The note demonstrates that ministry officials were irked enough by the PMO’s interference, that they were willing to see “a revised modality of negotations to be led by the PMO at appropriate level.”

Defence secretary note

Later in the day, the government responded by putting out additional details about the file noting, saying that the newspaper report did not have the full details. News agency ANI then got access to the entire document, which revealed another file noting.

“It appears that PMO and French president’s office are monitoring the progress of the issue,” the note, written by then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar wrote. “Para 5 [in which the note says the PMO’s actions had weakened the Indian negotation position] appears to be an overreaction. Def Sec [Defence Secretary] may resolve issue/matter in consultation with Pr. Sec [Private Secretary] to PM.”

In the view of the government, this resolved the questions that had come up in the Hindu report. “Then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikarji replied to that MoD note that ‘remain calm, nothing to worry, everything is going alright,” said defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman.”

Additional questions

Except the additional notings actually bring up a few more questions.

For one, there is the large time gap between the comments. The note itself seems to have been written on November 24, 2015. The Defence Secretary, who asked the Defence Minister to take up the matter, made his comment on December 1, 2015. Parrikar’s response, attempting to brush away the issue does not come until January 11, 2016.

Moreover, there is the question of Parrikar’s terminology. Why would the defence minister say “it appears that PMO and French president’s office are monitoring”, when, per protocol, only the negotiating team should be involved at that point? And how then did the Defence Sectretary “resolve” the matter in consultation with the private secretary to the prime minister?

Sovereign guarantee

Later in the day more information emerged. The defence secretary, whose comment makes up an important part of the note, said that the negotiations in question here are not to do with price.

Though he seems to be trying to quell the conversation, the defence secretary seems to have acknowledged that the Prime Minister’s Office did intervene on the question of a sovereign guarantee. This is one of the most controversial aspects of Modi’s Rafale deal.

As the Caravan has reported, Modi’s government decided to sign an inter-governmental deal with France in the Rafale matter without a sovereign guarantee – which would have made the French government liable for any default from the manufacturer – despite repeated objections from officials.

The Defence Secretary now seems to have admitted that the prime minister’s office was responsible for this decision, weakening the official negotiating team’s position. As per the Caravan report, the negotiations were then taken forward by National Security Advisor AK Doval, who gave the go-ahead for a deal without a sovereign guarantee, which would leave India to go into arbitration with the manufacturer, rather than the French government, if there is any issue with the Rafale jets.

As has been clear ever since the government first said it would reveal the price of the jets and then insisted that those details were actually confidential, the approach itself throughout the Rafale deal suggests much more scrutiny over Modi’s actions is needed.

Even if there is no smoking gun confirming the Congress claim that there is corruption involved, everything from the manner in which Modi broke protocol, the error that crept into the Supreme Court judgment and now the acknowledgement that the PMO was interfering in negotiations suggests that the entire deal needs to be examined carefully.

Also read:

The Modi Years: Why is the flagship Rafale deal still controversial?

Rafale explainer: Is India paying more for the fighter jet than it would have under UPA?

Rafale explainer: How are Anil Ambani and Reliance involved in the controversial deal?

The five obfuscations of the Rafale deal – and four simple questions the Modi government must answer