Spectre of Rafale Deal Returns to Haunt Ailing Parrikar in Goa

“The audio clip released by the Congress is a desperate attempt to fabricate facts after their lies were exposed by the recent SC verdict on Rafale. No such discussion ever came up during any meeting,” an official statement from the Goa chief minister's office said.

Panjim: The spectre of the Rafale controversy, raked up by a recorded conversation that features a Goa minister, couldn’t have come at a worse time for chief minister Manohar Parrikar whose media managers have tried to paint a picture of a leader still very much in command despite his terminal illness.

The Congress on Wednesday released an audio recording of a conversation in which  Goa’s health minister Vishwajit Rane, speaking to an unidentified person, is heard saying that Parrikar had made an “interesting statement on Rafale” in the cabinet meeting that took place at his residence some weeks ago.

Rane can be heard saying that Parrikar said he had all the information on Rafale in his bedroom. “This is something… which he said… that means he is holding them to ransom… He said it’s in my bedroom… here only in the flat… each and every document of Rafale is with me.”

Officially released photo of Parrikar meeting with a few MLAs in his office at secretariat on January 1, 2019.

The recording, which Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala released to the media outside parliament created a stir both in the Lok Sabha and in Goa, with the chief minister and Rane compelled to issue stinging denials.

“The audio clip released by the Congress party is a desperate attempt to fabricate facts after their lies were exposed by the recent Supreme Court verdict on Rafale. No such discussion ever came up during cabinet or any other meeting,” an official statement from Parrikar’s office said.

Also read: Rafale Takes Centerstage in Lok Sabha as Rahul Gandhi, Arun Jaitley Battle It Out

Rane who called a rushed press conference soon as the story broke to say that the tape had been “doctored” said he had spoken to BJP chief Amit Shah and asked for a police investigation into the matter. In a letter addressed to Parrikar he denied there had been a discussion between him “and any other individual in connection with an audio that has become viral regarding the Rafale row”. He said this was the work of someone trying to “play mischief” and those responsible should be brought to book.

He later told The Wire that the tape had been cleverly doctored “to sound very much like me”.

Here in Goa though, most journalists who have great access to ministers and politicians have little doubt that it is indeed Vishwajit Rane on the tape. The only question — somewhat inconsequential at this point —is who is on the other end of the phone line in the taped conversation.

Also read: Goa Minister Said Manohar Parrikar Has Rafale Documents in His Bedroom: Congress

Given its rather poor numerical strength in the Goa assembly and the fragile coalition math that binds its government together, the BJP is unlikely to take a tough stance on Vishwajit Rane for his indiscretion. The son of the former Congress chief minister Pratapsingh Rane, Vishwajit defected to the BJP last year and was soon inducted into the ministry. As things stand politically today, the BJP needs him more than he needs the saffron party in Goa.

But did Parrikar even bring up Rafale at the cabinet meeting — one of few that have taken place since he took ill in February last year? Another cabinet minister confirmed to The Wire that the chief minister did indeed make a passing reference to the Rafale deal, but not in quite the dramatic manner as recorded in the conversation that’s now gone viral. “He made some technical comments and had spoken on the benefits of the deal,” the source who asked that he not be named said.

Also read: During Crucial Rafale Negotiations, PMO Compromised Defence Ministry’s Position

Many believe Rane’s conversation is more a result of his impatience and frustration at being stuck in a non-functioning government. Parrikar has been ruling in absentia for the better part of the last ten months and still continues to hold some forty portfolios, despite a commitment from the party that there would be a portfolio redistribution after the December 11 election results.

On Tuesday, the BJP staged a photo op by bringing a frail chief minister to the state secretariat on New Year’s Day to show that he’s still capable of running a government. The Congress criticised the move as nothing more than an “exhibition”, while others criticised the party and the police for the brazen breach of security that allowed so many party supporters inside the precincts of the Secretariat for the BJP tamasha.