Amidst the raging controversy over the Rafale deal, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman appeared on the Republic TV, where the channel’s anchor Arnab Goswami conducted what he said was the ‘final Rafale interview.’ Sitharaman’s interview on the Republic TV was being aired in the backdrop of serious allegations by Congress President Rahul Gandhi, who accused her of lying in the parliament.
Sitharaman, in her hour-long interview, struggled on several occasions when being asked to explain the contentious issues of pricing, her government’s decision to reduce the number of aircrafts from 126 to 36 and the choice of Anil Ambani as the Indian offset partner of Dassault Aviation, the manufacturer of Rafale jets.
The defence minister was asked why her government brought down the number of Rafale jets from 126, as being negotiated by the UPA government, to just 36 when, by her own claims, India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi had secured the deal 9% cheaper than the previous Congress regime. Sitharaman let herself down as she struggled to come up with a satisfactory reply. Her best answer was, “IAF doesn’t require just 126. It probably required 500-600 aircraft of various types.” She even fumbled in explaining the kind of fighter jets, required by the IAF, before trying to bail herself out by saying ‘aircrafts are not out of the shelf. You don’t go to a shop and pick them up.’
She was then reminded about Minister of State for Defence Subhash Bhamre’s reply in the parliament on November 18, 2016, when he had said, “IGA (Inter Govermental Agreement) with the Government of France has been signed on September 23, 2016, for purchase of 36 Rafale aircraft along with requisite equipment, services and weapons. The cost of each Rafale aircraft is approximately Rs 670 and all the aircraft will be delivered by April 2022.”
Sitharaman said that Bhamre may not have said that Rs 670 crore was the cost of each aircraft with requisite equipment, services and weapons. She said that the cost of Rs 670 crore was just for the basic aircraft. Her reply suggests that either Bhamre may have misled the parliament in 2016 or she was not being truthful during her interview on Republic TV.
In response to another question, Sitharaman implied that former French President Hollande may have blamed her government for proposing Anil Ambani’s name as the Indian offset partner because of his ‘conflict of interest’ as Ambani was to reportedly finance a film produced by the former President’s partner. However, she ducked the question when asked if she would be able to repeat the same at Hollande’s face. She quickly moved on to suggest that Congress President Rahul Gandhi may have prompted Hollande to make those comments. This the charge that Sitharaman’s colleague Arun Jaitley too had made last year.
While revealing that the Indian government had suggested the name of Anil Ambani as the Indian offset partner, Hollande had also clarified on his alleged ‘conflict of interest.’ He had said, “The Indian government proposed this service group, and Dassault negotiated with Ambani. We did not have a choice, we took the interlocutor who was given to us. That’s why, on the other hand, this group did not have to give me any thanks for anything. I could not even imagine that there was any connection to a film by Julie Gayet.”
Unlike India, laws against corruption are considerably stringent and Hollande may face jail sentence if the charges of the so-called conflict of interest are found to be true, as implied by Sitharaman in her interview.
The defence minister was also asked why the Indian government did not open up the deal for fresh bidding given that Eurofighter had offered 25% reduction in prices after losing out the Rafale deal during the UPA government. Goswami asked,”Why was a 7-year old selection seen as sacrosanct?” The question assumed significance since the Modi government has time and again said that the UPA government had not completed the deal with the Dassault. This, they’ve claimed, was the reason why the Modi government had to start afresh.
While the Modi government chose not to follow the pricing, number of jets to be purchased (36 as opposed to 126) and the choice of the HAL (as opposed to Anil Ambani) as the Indian offset partner, Sitharaman’s response suggested, it felt compelled to go ahead with Dassault, which was declared as Li bidder by the UPA government. Had the Modi government chosen to open up the bidding process afresh, the pricing of the Rafale jets would have been significantly cheaper since Eurofighter had reduced its prices further by 25%.
The question is; did Sitharaman feel let down by Arnab Goswami, who chose to penetrating questions on the Rafale interview and kept giving her grief with equally uncomfortable follow-up questions?