On Monday, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told Parliament that she could not reveal the price India will be paying for the 36 Rafale fighter jets being purchased from France because it is “classified information.” The non-response has only added to the controversy over the cost of the aircraft, which the Congress has alleged are being bought at an exorbitant price compared to a deal it had negotiated in the United Progressive Alliance years.
Rajeev Gowda, a Congress Member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha, had submitted a question to Sitharaman asking her to state “the cost per aircraft under the Inter-Governmental Agreement for 36 Rafale aircraft.”
In her reply, Sitharaman said:
“As per ‘Article-10’ of the Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) between Government of India and Government of France on the purchase of Rafale aircraft, the protection of the classified information and material exchanged under IGA is governed by the provisions of the Security Agreement signed between the two nations signed in 2008.”
In other words, even details about the price – and effectively how much taxpayer money Parliament is apportioning for the appropriation of the aircraft – comes under this classified tag that Sitharaman claims prevents her from informing the Rajya Sabha about the details.
This is a remarkable turnaround from a press conference that the minister addressed in 2017, when the Congress was alleging that the government was overpaying for the aircraft. At the time, Sitharaman had insisted that the difference between the Congress-run UPA government and the Bharatiya Janata Party-run National Democratic Alliance was tranparency.
“There is nothing that is going to stick on this government because everything is being done transparently and as per procedure,” Sitharaman had said. “There is just no comparison between the ways in which UPA took decisions and the way in which NDA takes decisions, because we have made both simpler, smoother, faster and above all transparent.”
Indeed, in the press conference, Sitharaman got even more specific, saying she would reveal all details about the pricing because it involved public money. “I’m not running away from giving you specific numbers,” she said, at around 14:17 in the above video of her press conference. “We will give you... I don’t mind about the cost and the amount which is being paid, agreed to be paid, because those are public money.”
And earlier in the press conference, Sitharaman said she could prove that the prices were better. “Even on price, we have obtained the deal for the 36 which is far better than what they would have obtained per aircraft,” she said, saying the Congress was wrong to ask questions about it. “I think to bicker on the cost, which I can anytime prove that we’ve obtained a better price, but to bicker on that as though they’ve served the interest of the preparedness and we are not doing it is, I’m sorry to use sharp words, shameful.”
Sitharaman’s U-turn has led to plenty of reactions from the Congress and others online.