Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told ANI on Friday that the Prime Minister’s Office is responsible for checking up with all the ministries and that it could not be construed as “interference”. Sitharaman was responding to a report published in The Hindu earlier in the day claiming the Prime Minister’s Office had conducted “parallel negotiations” with France on the Rafale fighter jet deal.

“The Prime Minister is the first among equals in the Union Cabinet,” said Sitharaman. “If the Prime Minister’s Office checks up on a ministry, it cannot be seen as interference. The PMO is responsible for finding out the progress and they were rightly doing it.”

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”.

Sitharaman refuted the newspaper report, saying it had done an incomplete job. “The nature of what they are revealing demands that they look for further information in this case,” she said, adding that the decision to sign the Rafale deal was correct and taken on merit. Sitharaman had earlier said that the newspaper report was similar to “flogging a dead horse”.

The defence minister accused the newspaper of publishing the “half-truth” and said it had not attempted to reach out to the government for clarification. “My suspicion is that they wanted to create doubts in reader’s mind... to me, it looks like an attempt by people who are doing it for themselves or in response to some corporate warfare going on in this matter,” she said.

Sitharaman last month had inquired if the Opposition had become a pawn in a corporate rivalry.

The Congress and other opposition parties on Friday criticised the Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government after the report came to light, with Congress chief Rahul Gandhi saying it was “black and white” that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had pursued parallel negotiations with France. Both Modi and Sitharaman had lied to the country, he claimed.