New Delhi: Former French President Francois Hollande may have set the record straight on the selection of Anil Ambani-promoted Reliance Defence as an offset partner in the Rafale deal, but, in doing so, he has triggered apprehensions that the India-France relationship could suffer collateral damage in the ensuing row.
This fear has been voiced by the French government, with the country’s junior foreign minister, Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, saying that Hollande’s remarks “do not help anyone and above all do not help France”.
Curiously, as defence and French observers have noted, Lemoyne did not choose to contradict or refute Hollande’s main allegation.
Last week, the former French president caused a political storm in India with his revelation that the Indian government was the one that proposed Reliance Defence’s name for the Rafale deal. Hollande’s clarification came as Anil Ambani-led business house had partially financed a film produced by his girlfriend Julie Gayet, in 2016.
“I find these remarks made overseas, which concern important international relations between France and India, do not help anyone and above all do not help France,” Lemoyne said on Sunday about Hollande.
“Because one is no longer in office, causing damage to a strategic partnership between India and France by making remarks that clearly cause controversy in India is really not appropriate,” he added in an interview to Radio J.
Lemoyne was referring to in particular Hollande’s statement in Montreal on Friday to AFP, where he said that Anil Ambani’s Reliance appeared as a part of a “new formula” in negotiations over the Rafale deal, which was decided by the Modi government after it came to power.
As French president, Hollande, along with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, had signed the inter-government deal in 2016 for the supply of 36 Rafale jets by Dassault Aviation to the Indian Air Force.
Opposition party Congress used Hollande’s revelation as ammo to intensify attack on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and push its demand for setting up a joint parliamentary committee to probe the deal.
Lemoyne’s fear is not unfounded, given the way the Modi government has reacted to Hollande’s revelation. Finance minister Arun Jaitley has questioned Hollande’s “contradictory statements” over India’s purchase of 36 Rafale jets and repeated that the government had no role in choosing an offset partner for the deal.
“Truth cannot have two versions,” Jaitley wrote in a Facebook blog on Sunday in reply to Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s demand for the prime minister to clear the air in the matter.
Hollande was quoted by French investigative website Mediapart as saying that it was the Indian government that had proposed a private company (Reliance Defence) as the offset partner for Dassault, which contradicted Modi government’s stand that it had nothing to do with Dassault’s choice of partner.
The deal negotiated by the previous UPA government in 2012 for the supply of 126 Rafale jets involved state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) as Indian partner. The UPA could not close the deal.
The Modi government, which came to power in May 2014, renegotiated the deal with the French government. The number of jet purchases was reduced to 36 from 126 and HAL was replaced with Reliance Defence as Dassault’s offsets partner.
The deal attracted media glare as Anil Ambani group had no prior experience of manufacturing jets.