Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Friday told PTI in an interview that the Opposition does not deserve to be engaged on the Rafale deal as it has smeared a sensitive matter. Sitharaman was asked if the government would address the Opposition’s apprehensions about the deal the way former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had addressed the Opposition’s questions about a civil nuclear agreement with the United States in 2005.
“Is there any point of calling them [Opposition] and explaining?” the minister asked. “They are misleading the country with something which was not even agreed to during the UPA [United Progressive Alliance] government. You are throwing an allegation saying there is a fraud. You did not care for operational preparedness of the Air Force.”
Sitharaman said the Narendra Modi-led government had decided to procure only two squadrons of Rafale jets after China and Pakistan inducted stealth fighters. “It [Rafale deal] is an inter-governmental agreement,” she said. “You [Opposition] have asked us questions and I have given answers to them in Parliament. Then what am I calling them for? What am I going to tell them when I call them?”
Sitharaman dismissed the Opposition’s attempts to equate the Rafale deal with the Bofors scam as she has removed middlemen from the defence ministry.
The Congress has accused the Centre of signing an overpriced deal and helping Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence Ltd, which had no prior experience in the sector before landing a contract with Dassault Aviation, which manufactures the fighter jets. In October 2017, the two defence firms laid the foundation stone for a facility near Nagpur to manufacture aerospace components.
Congress has said the UPA government had finalised a price of Rs 526 crore per jet for 126 Rafale aircraft but the present government has agreed to buy each aircraft for Rs 1,670 crore even though the weapons and avionics have the same configuration.
Sitharaman claimed that weapon systems, avionics and other key add-ons would be “much superior” than what the UPA had negotiated. The controversy surrounding the deal would not affect the flow of foreign funds to the defence sector, she added, calling the Opposition’s allegations baseless.
The minister also rejected the allegation that the government was trying to help Reliance as it has no role in selecting Dassault Aviation’s offset partner. “I have not got to know who is Dassault’s offset partner,” she said. “It is a commercial decision. There are procedures laid down to check the process of fulfilment of offset obligations. Neither I can accept, nor I can suggest, nor I can reject anybody from going with anybody.”
On Thursday, Sitharaman said the the United Progressive Alliance government’s deal to buy the fighter jets had collapsed as Hindustan Aeronautics Limited could not guarantee that the product would be produced.