January 2, 2019
The debate on Rafale jet fighter deal — punctuated by two adjournments and deafening protests by AIADMK workers on the Cauvery issue — saw a head-on collision between the government and the Congress in Lok Sabha today. As Rahul Gandhi targeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi, posing a series of questions that he said the PM had “no guts” to answer, Union Minister Arun Jaitley ripped into the Congress chief, accusing him of lying and raising the AgustaWestland deal, the National Herald case and Bofors issue to target is family.
“It is a tragedy for the country that the Grand Old Party is headed today by a gentleman who doesn’t have an understanding what a combat aircraft is,” Mr Jaitley said in a no-holds-barred attack. Referring to the Supreme Court’s judgment last month that came as a validation for the government’s decision on the deal, he said if the top court is satisfied, why would a joint parliamentary committee, which is divided on party lines, review it.
In a first, Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress and Naveen Patnaik’s BJD also spoke against the Rafale deal. The BJP’s cantankerous ally Shiv Sena also backed the demand for a joint parliamentary committee investigation into the deal.
Opening the debate, Mr Gandhi had said the Prime Minister can give a “fixed interview” for 95 minutes, but “doesn’t have the guts to come to parliament and face questions on Rafale.
“Yesterday, PM seemed scared and tired in his interview. He said no one was questioning him on the Rafale deal. The whole country is questioning you,” he said, reiterating the party’s demand for a joint parliamentary committee to investigate the Rafale deal.
Shouting to make himself heard above the deafening slogan-shouting by the AIADMK, Mr Gandhi also attacked the defence minister, saying she was “hiding” behind the protesting members of the Tamil Nadu party.
“The Rafale aircraft was chosen after eight years of work by the Air Force; they wanted 126 aircraft. Who changed the requirement of the Air Force from 126 to 36? Did the Air Force tell the government we don’t want 126?” Mr Gandhi said. “The excuse given was that we needed the aircraft urgently. Then why hasn’t a single aircraft landed in India?”
Mr Gandhi also requested to play an audio tape on Rafale that his party claims is the recording of a Goa minister quoting Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar as saying that files related to the Rafale jet deal were “in his bedroom”. But when the Speaker repeatedly asked whether he was ready to authenticate the tape and Mr Jaitley objected, Mr Gandhi said, “I understand that you are terrified, I will not play the tape, if it makes you happy.”
Mr Jaitley, on whose challenge the Congress agreed to today’s debate, hit back sharply. “This man lies repeatedly… There are some people who have a natural dislike for truth. This is a case where there is a dislike for truth,” he said.
Raising the AugustaWestland deal, the National Herald and the Bofors cases, the finance minister, quoting a dialogue in James Bond movies, said: “If it happens once, it’s happenstance; if it happens twice, it’s a coincidence; but if it happens thrice, then it’s a conspiracy.”
While his speech was on, opposition members started flying paper planes, pushing the Speaker to admonish them for this “childish behaviour” and forcing a second adjournment.
Congress member Gurjeet Singh Aujla later explained: “We threw the paper planes as the discussion was on Rafale. So talk about Rafale. But they were talking about Bofors, Agusta”.
When the house resumed, Mr Jaitley said he would like to address Mr Gandhi’s questions.
“In the press statement that was released with President Hollande, terms and conditions were mentioned… 74 meetings were held to decide on various details… When an agreement was reached after 74 meetings, then DAC got involved,” Mr Jaitley said. “Nobody here can be entitled enough to challenge the Supreme Court’s verdict. The top court has clearly said process was duly followed.”
The top court, Mr Jaitley said, had asked for the price of Rafale ‘To satisfy the conscience of the court”. The Centre gave the prices in sealed cover. “The court’s conscience was satisfied, but Congress conscience hasn’t been satisfied,” the minister added.