Nirmala Sitharaman, Rahul Gandhi Trade Barbs Over Rafale

The defence minister claimed that the Bofors case sank the Congress, but Rafale would bring Narendra Modi back.

New Delhi: Tearing into the Congress on the Rafale deal issue, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Friday alleged that the party stalled the deal when it was in power as it “didn’t get money” and ignored national security.

During her nearly two-hour-long reply to a discussion on the Rafale issue in the Lok Sabha, Sitharaman accused the Congress of resorting to falsehood to mislead the country and gave a “point-by-point” rebuttal to the opposition’s allegations, including on the price of the fighter aircraft and why HAL did not get the offset contract.

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

“I don’t want to talk about Bofors because that is a scam and not Rafale. Bofors brought you [Congress] down. Rafale will bring Modi back to have a new and transforming India and remove corruption which is stinking around the Congress,” the Minister said.

Countering the Congress’ charge, she said that it was the Indian Air Force which suggested that the government buy two squadrons or 36 Rafale jets in fly-away condition instead of 18, as was planned to be purchased under the Congress-led UPA government.

A view of the Lok Sabha during a discussion on issues related to the Rafale deal on January 2. 2019. Credit: PTI/RSTV grab

She accused the Congress of compromising national security in the interest of the party’s “treasury” while deciding on buying 126 fighter jets.

With regard to pricing difference, Sitharaman said there was no formal price noting by the Congress of Rs 526 crore as the deal price. But the price negotiated by the NDA government is 9% lower than the UPA’s, she claimed.

“Comparing the cost of Rs 526 crore with Rs 1,600 crore, is like comparing apples to oranges. The cost quoted in 2007 will it remain the same in 2016, because there is escalation cost and there is exchange rate variation,” she said.

“The price of the basic aircraft cannot be compared with price of weaponised aircraft,” the minister further said.

Sitharaman alleged that the Congress was only shedding “crocodile tears” on the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) not getting the offset contract as it did nothing to scale up the capacity of the state-run firm.

She claimed that the NDA government has given Rs 1 lakh crore worth of contracts to HAL.

Referring to negotiations of the Rafale deal during the rule of Congress-led UPA, the Minister said, “You stopped the deal, forgetting Air Force was suffering.

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

“You didn’t conclude the deal, because it didn’t suit you. The deal didn’t get you money,” she alleged.

“They did not intend to buy the aircraft till something else was done. There is something different between defence deal and deal in defence,” she said, asserting that Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government gave priority to national security.

“You are misleading the country by saying the NDA government reduced 126 Rafale jets to 36. Congress was supposed to buy 18 in fly-away condition, the NDA raised that to 36,” she said.

Talking about the Anil Dhirubain Ambani Group, which received the offset contract for the fighter jet deals, the minister said the company obtained 53 waivers and concessions during the Congress-led UPA regime.

While countering Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s claim that a French leader had told him there was no secrecy clause in the deal, Sitharaman asked Gandhi to authenticate his claim on the floor of the house.

‘Didn’t answer any questions’: Rahul Gandhi

Later speaking outside the parliament, Congress president Rahul Gandhi said Sitharaman gave a “long speech” but did not answer any of his questions on the Rafale deal.

“The defence minister did not answer any of the questions I asked on the Rafale deal. She did not even take the name of Anil Ambani,” Gandhi told reporters outside parliament.

Gandhi said he put two questions to the minister towards the end of the debate and asked her to reply with a “yes” or “no”.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi before the Lok Sabha session in New Delhi on January 2. 2019. Credit: PTI

“I asked that after a long negotiation process, those people who participated in that negotiations – Air Force chief, defence minister, secretaries, Air Force officials – when the prime minister did a ‘bypass surgery’… did the Air Force people object, yes or no,” Gandhi said.

Also Read: Spectre of Rafale Deal Returns to Haunt Ailing Parrikar in Goa

“And you saw that instead of answering this, the defence minister started doing drama that ‘I have been insulted, I was called a liar’,” he said.

“The PM cannot come (to parliament), and the chief minister of Goa is saying I have a file and I will get back at the PM. She gave a two-and-a-half hour speech and did not answer any questions,” Gandhi said.