New Delhi: Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Friday was firing on all cylinders as she hit back at the Congress party and dismissed as “selective journalism” a news report in The Hindu which said that the defence ministry had objected to the “parallel negotiations” being conducted by the Prime Minister’s Office into the Rafale deal. To buttress its contention, the newspaper reproduced an internal note of the defence ministry, which said ‘‘parallel discussions by the PMO have weakened the negotiating position of the MoD.’’
“We may advise PMO that any officers who are not part of the Indian Negotiating Team may refrain from having parallel parleys with the officers of the French Government,” the note authored by the former Defence Secretary further said. It also suggested that revised modalities be adopted to enable the PMO to negotiate directly, if it so desired. The Congress latched onto the note, pointing out that the government had committed perjury by submitting before the Supreme Court that the PMO was not at all involved in the Rafale deal.
Rahul Gandhi further stretched the argument to suggest that PM Modi had conducted parallel negotiations to benefit his cronies (read Anil Ambani.) “For more than a year, we have been saying that the PM is directly involved in Rafale scam,’’ he asserted, to drive home his point. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman retaliated in the Lok Sabha and pointed out that the MoD note published by The Hindu about the “parallel” negotiations had ignored Manohar Parrikar’s observation on the same note that PMO was only monitoring the deal and the bureaucrat in question was over reacting.
Attacking The Hindu newspaper, she said, “If it wanted to bring the truth out, it was incumbent on the newspaper to put that reply of the Raksha Mantri also on record.” Sitharaman insisted that her predecessor Manohar Parrikar had clearly scotched the defence secretary’s concern over “parallel negotiations” by noting on the file that there is “nothing to worry.” G Mohan Kumar, the defence secretary at the time of the Rafale negotiations, has clarified that his dissent note had nothing to do with the pricing of Rafale; rather, it was all about the sovereign guarantee and other conditions.
The Congress party had a new concern: ‘Why was the bank/sovereign guarantee given a go by? Why were India’s interests compromised? ‘‘Why did Modiji bypass the Indian Negotiation Team to waive off the condition of Sovereign Guarantee or a Bank Guarantee? Did it not compromise India’s interests as over Rs 30,000 crore had to be paid in advance without delivery of a single aircraft,” Randeep Surjewala asked. The Defence Minister did not respond to the specific charge but responding by saying that the Congress is flogging a dead horse as all issues concerning the defence deal have been answered.
She also rejected Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge’s demand for a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe. Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, who adjourned the question hour due to the ruckus on the issue, continued the sitting even amid the pandemonium, saying the Rafale issue has been already discussed in the House in the last session and she won’t allow another discussion. Interference, if any in the government affairs, was by Sonia Gandhi as the chairperson of the National Advisory Council (NAC) during the UPA-II government, she asserted.
She reiterated Prime Minister Modi’s charge and accused the Congress of “working at the behest of a multinational corporation (MNC) to keep the issue alive’’. Her reply was greeted by the Congress benches with the slogan of “Modi chor hai, chor hai.” The Speaker repeatedly asserted that the House cannot be disrupted on the basis of a newspaper report when Kharge tried to stress that The Hindu is not an ordinary newspaper. The defence minister wanted that the Hindu, which published the defence secretary’s letter, should also publish what Parrikar wrote to close the matter.