The Ministry of Defence in 2015 objected to “parallel negotiations” conducted by the Prime Minister’s Office with France when the two countries were discussing the Rafale jet deal, The Hindu reported on Friday. Manohar Parrikar, now the chief minister of Goa, was in charge of the ministry at that time.

In a note dated November 24, 2015, officials of the defence ministry told Parrikar the parallel negotiations carried out by the Prime Minister’s Office had “weakened the negotiating position of MoD [the Ministry of Defence] and Indian negotiating team”.

The ministry officials suggested advising the Prime Minister’s Office that any officers who are not part of the Indian negotiating team should refrain from having parallel conversations with French government officers. The ministry suggested that “in case the PMO is not confident about the outcome of negotiations being carried out by the MoD, a revised modality of negotiations to be led by PMO at appropriate level may be adopted”.

A seven-member team headed by Air Marshal SBP Sinha, the deputy chief of Air staff, had conducted the negotiations, according to the government’s submission to the Supreme Court in the matter in October. There was no mention of the role of the Prime Minister’s Office in the negotiations.

In the defence ministry note accessed by The Hindu, then Defence Secretary G Mohan Kumar noted that “it is desirable that such discussions be avoided by the PMO as it undermines our negotiating position seriously”. The note was prepared by Deputy Secretary (Air-II) SK Sharma, and endorsed by the ministry’s joint secretary and acquisition manager (air) and the director general (acquisition).

Meanwhile, ANI reported that Parrikar had then replied to the dissent note by his ministry’s officials, and had called their remark about the intervention by the Prime Minister’s Office an “overreaction”. Parrikar had written: “It appears PMO and French President’s office are monitoring the progress of the issue which was an outcome of the summit meeting. Para 5 [the paragraph in the dissent note where the officials remarked about the PMO] appears to be an overreaction.”

Reacting to The Hindu report, G Mohan Kumar told ANI that the note had nothing to do with the price of the aircraft to be procured as part of the deal. “It was about sovereign guarantees and general terms and conditions,” he said. The Opposition parties have accused the Modi government of getting an overpriced deal.

Congress President Rahul Gandhi said it was now “black and white” that Narendra Modi had carried out parallel negotiations with France, and accused him of lying to the country.

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said “periodical enquiries” by the Prime Minister’s Office in India’s negotiations with France on the Rafale deal “cannot be construed as interference”, PTI reported. She said the report by The Hindu was “flogging a dead horse”.

A letter from the French side

The ministry came to know of the parallel negotiations from a letter written by General Stephen Reb, the head of the French negotiating team, on October 23, 2015, the report by The Hindu said.

The letter mentioned a telephonic conversation three days before, which took place between Jawed Ashraf, a joint secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, and Luis Vassy, a diplomatic advisor to the French minister of defence.

Reb’s letter was then brought to the notice of the Prime Minister’s Office. Air Marshal SBP Sinha, who was leading the Indian negotiators, also wrote to Ashraf, who confirmed two weeks later that he had held discussions with the French diplomat. Vassy “spoke to him on the advice of the French president’s office and the issues referred to General Reb’s letter were discussed”, Ashraf told Sinha.

In its note to the PMO, the ministry noted that “such parallel negotiations may be detrimental to our interests as the French side may take advantage of same by interpreting such discussions to their benefit and weakening the position taken by Indian Negotiating Team. This has precisely happened in this case”.

This is, however, not the first instance of parallel negotiations being carried out by the Indian government where contrary positions were taken on the matter of the deal. In December, it was reported that National Security Advisor Ajit Doval negotiated with France in Paris in January 2016 even though he had no legal sanction to be part of such a negotiating team. The Hindu said it has access to documentation that confirms Doval’s involvement. Doval’s name was also not mentioned in the affidavit submitted by the government to the the Supreme Court in October.

The Congress has accused the Narendra Modi government of paying more for the aircraft compared the the deal negotiated by the United Progressive Alliance government, and demanded a Joint Parliamentary Committee investigation into it. They have also accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of helping businessman Anil Ambani land an offset contract under the deal even though he had no prior experience in the defence sector. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and Modi have rejected the accusations. On Thursday, the prime minister accused the Congress of attempting to scuttle the deal.