Former Union Defence Minister and senior Congress leader AK Antony on Friday said it was shocking that the Prime Minister’s Office was conducting “parallel negotiations” with France on the Rafale fighter jet deal and claimed it was protecting “special interests”, PTI reported.

“This is shocking to me,” Antony told reporters outside Parliament in New Delhi. “In the defence negotiations, only the defence ministry is involved.”

Antony was reacting to a news report in The Hindu published earlier in the day. According to it, the Ministry of Defence had, in 2015, objected to “parallel negotiations” conducted by the Prime Minister’s Office with France when the two countries were discussing the deal.

Antony, who served as defence minister during both terms of the United Progressive Alliance government, said such negotiations were unprecedented and asked why the Prime Minister’s Office had taken special interest. “Never in the history of the government of India it has happened like that,” he said. “Why did the PMO take such a special interest in this case? They have special interests to protect. They want to favour somebody.”

Antony alleged that something had taken place in the Prime Minister’s Office, which is not supposed to play a role in price negotiations. “It is the duty entirely of the Defence Ministry and the armed forces,” he said. “Only they do these kind of negotiations.”

The former minister said the Narendra Modi-led government should immediately accede to the Opposition’s demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the matter.

Congress leader Anand Sharma also sought a JPC investigation. “Not only should a JPC be formed, but it should submit its report before the general elections, even if it has to sit everyday,” he said. “The country has suffered a great loss... not one aircraft has come to India and this is for the first time in history that the process of defence acquisition has been bypassed and a parallel negotiation has taken place.”

Earlier, Congress President Rahul Gandhi said it was “black and white” that Modi had carried out parallel negotiations with France. He also accused Modi and Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman of lying to the country.

‘Modi undermined air force to help cronies’

Communist Party of India (Marxist) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury alleged that Modi had consistently undermined the Air Force and the Defence Ministry to “benefit his cronies” in the Rafale deal.

“The prime minister must take responsibility for the loss to the exchequer, violation of procedure to get far fewer fighter jets than what Air Force wanted,” Yechury said in a tweet. “All just to help cronies.”

Meanwhile, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal called for an independent Central Bureau of Investigation to raid the Prime Minister’s Office and make arrests in connection with the Rafale deal.

“In the light of today’s expose on Rafale, ‘independent’ CBI should raid PMO, seize all the files related to Rafale and make arrests just like they raided my office and residence and Kolkata police commissioner,” the Aam Aadmi Party leader tweeted.

His party colleague and Rajya Sabha MP Sanjay Singh said he will file a case against Modi in light of the new information. “The truth that has come to the fore now has exposed the real face of Modi,” he said. “We have been saying from day one that there is a scam of Rs 36,000 crore.”

Singh said he will approach the court if the police refused to register a case.

Former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah said a note by the Ministry of Defence indicted that then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had no knowledge of the progress in negotiations. The note claimed it was clear that parallel discussions had “weakened the negotiating position of MoD [Ministry of Defence] and the Indian Negotiating Team.”

In his reply to the note, Parrikar allegedly said that the ministry officials’ remarks about the intervention by the Prime Minister’s Office was 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.”

In a tweet, Abdullah claimed Parrikar was clueless about the progress of negotiations.

The National Conference leader inquired on what ground Parrikar had labelled the remarks as an overreaction when he had no direct knowledge of the status of the negotiations. “His act of passing the matter for the defence secretary to resolve with the PMO clearly shows he had no grounds on which to base his ‘overreaction’ assessment,” said Abdullah.

The government has denied all the allegations of interference, with Sitharaman saying that the report by The Hindu was similar to “flogging a dead horse”.