January 4, 2019
Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in an over two-hour reply in parliament to an acrimonious debate on the Rafale jet deal, accused the Congress of scrapping an earlier deal for 126 jets when it was in power because it “didn’t get the money” and ignored national security in favour of its “treasury security”. Pulling no punches, the minister referred to the Bofors scandal that exploded when Rajiv Gandhi – the father of Congress president Rahul Gandhi – was prime minister in 1986 and said: “Bofors was a scam, Rafale is not. It is a decision in the national interest. They lost an election because of Bofors. Rafale will bring Prime Minister Narendra Modi back to power.”
In response, Rahul Gandhi directly accused the PM of corruption: “I am not accusing the defense minister. I am accusing Narendra Modi of involvement in the Rafale scam.”
Allegations linked to the Rafale purchase, mainly that PM Modi went for a new, overpriced deal for 36 aircraft to help Anil Ambani win a Rs. 30,000 crore offset contract, were the core of Congress’ campaign for recent elections in which it snatched three BJP-ruled states. On Wednesday, Rahul Gandhi referred to “AA” when he repeated the allegations. The government reasserted today that it had no role in choosing offset partners.
“For every AA there’s an RV and also a Q,” sneered the defence minister, apparently referring to land scam allegations against Robert Vadra, the brother-in-law of Rahul Gandhi, and also Ottavio Quattrocchi, the alleged Bofors middleman.
Nirmala Sitharaman alleged that the deal negotiated by the Congress fell through because “it didn’t suit” the party. “The deal didn’t get you money. There is something different between a defence deal and dealing in defence. We don’t do defence dealings. We deal in defence with national security as our priority.” She also quoted last month’s Supreme Court giving a clean chit to the government on its Rafale decision-making.
Defending the 36-jet deal, the minister also charged the Congress with shedding “crocodile tears” on HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) not getting the offset contract with Rafale-maker Dassault as the party did nothing for the state-run company.
Ms Sitharaman also explained that this government’s deal is cheaper compared to the UPA’s. “Our price of the basic Rafale aircraft is Rs. 670 crores, which is nine per cent cheaper than what the UPA deal would have cost. That is Rs. 737 crores,” she said.
She also emphasized that unlike the previous deal, which never materialized, the delivery of first Rafale aircraft will happen in September 2019 and the last of the 36 jets will be delivered in 2022.
Rahul Gandhi, referring to the scrapping of the previous deal, asked: “When this bypass surgery was done by PM, did defence ministry officials object to it? Can you answer this with a yes or no?”
The Congress president also said Francois Hollande, the French president when the government signed the new deal, had said that Anil Ambani’s name was suggested by PM Modi as one of the offset partners.
The debate in the Lok Sabha saw dramatic moments like paper-planes flown from the opposition benches during Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s statement. More than 40 MPs were suspended for their misconduct.
The defence minister’s marathon rebuttal hit an emotional note in the end as she lashed out at Rahul Gandhi for calling PM Modi a “chor (thief)” and her a liar. “I don’t have a khandaan (dynasty) to boast of. I come from an ordinary background, I come with my honour intact, PM comes from an economically backward family… and you call him chor? Did you apologise after hugging him and winking in your seat?”
Rahul Gandhi later accused her of “running away” after avoiding an answer.
Earlier today, he had declared that there would be a criminal investigation into the Rafale deal if his party came to power in this year’s national election.
The opposition wants a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the Rafale deal even though the Supreme Court recently gave a clean chit to the government.