Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Friday accused the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government of creating a deadlock in the Rafale fighter jet deal with France, ANI reported.
“China and Pakistan are building a bigger fleet,” she said during a debate in the Lok Sabha on the deal. “The UPA government wanted only 18 flyaway fighter jets. UPA created a deadlock.”
She alleged that while the Bofors defence deal had brought down the Congress, the Rafale deal would help bring Modi’s government back. Elections are due to be held this summer. “In the same breath, I do not want to talk of Bofors. Because Bofors was a scam that brought the Congress down... Rafale will bring Modi back to make a new India.”
The minister said there was a difference between defence dealings and dealing in defence. “We do not do defence dealings,” NDTV quoted her as saying. “We deal in defence with national security as a priority. National security is important, no matter who is in power. We cannot run away from facts.”
She accused the Congress of misleading the nation. “This entire campaign [Congress accusations] has been on falsehoods and totally irresponsible allegations,” Sitharaman said. “By asking the weapon details and other details, the details of which are covered under secrecy law, are you not putting the country in danger.”
In 2016, India and France signed an agreement for the supply of 36 Rafale jets to New Delhi. The UPA government had negotiated a deal for 126 aircraft. The Congress has accused the government of buying overpriced jets, and also of helping Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence secure an offset contract under the deal after taking it away from Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.
“The first aircraft will be delivered in September 2019 and 36 aircraft will be delivered in the year 2022,” Sitharaman told the Lower House. “The process of negotiation was finished in 14 months.”
The minister said that timely purchase of defence equipment is necessary as India has faced wars on its western and northern frontiers in the past. “Senior members of the Opposition don’t want to hear my answers [to their questions on the deal],” she said. “It is very disheartening. This country needs to know that defence purchases are national security-related and very important, whether they are in power or we are.”
Sitharaman also said Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge had acknowledged in a report of a standing committee on defence production that Hindustan Aeronautics Limited could not produce the jets even after three decades. She claimed that the Congress never intended to purchase the jets while they was in power.
Earlier in the day, Congress President Rahul Gandhi demanded an investigation into Prime Minister Narendra Modi for alleged corruption and for “weakening national security” by giving the Rafale contract to “his friend” Anil Ambani. He has also challenged Modi to a one-to-one debate on the deal.
The defence minister also criticised Gandhi for winking after hugging Modi in Parliament last year. “Have you [Rahul Gandhi] apologised for winking after hugging the prime minister? This is not the way a House should run.”
She also reiterated criticism by the Bharatiya Janata Party about the Congress being dominated by the Gandhi family, ANI reported. “I do not have a ‘khandan’ [family] to boast on,” the defence minister said. “The prime minister also comes from a poor background. He has come here from hard work. I have my honour intact. The prime minister has his honour intact. We have all come from normal backgrounds.”
Rahul Gandhi defends his allegations
Rahul Gandhi, however, defended his demand for the price of the deal. “The price is not part of the secrecy pact,” Gandhi said. “My question is Anil Ambani was brought in for the contract. Who was the one to decide on Anil Ambani?”
The Congress chief also asked why Sitharaman did not mention Anil Ambani’s name even once in her address to the Lok Sabha. “You spoke for two hours, but did not mention Anil Ambani’s name even once,” Gandhi said. “You have also not answered our question about who took the decision to give him the contract.”