Paris: Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman Friday visited a production facility of French aerospace major Dassault Aviation near Paris where the Rafale jets to be supplied to India are being manufactured, official sources said. They said during her visit to the plant in Argenteuil, Sitharaman spoke to officials of the Dassault Aviation, the makers of Rafale, and took stock of progress in production of the fighter jets whose delivery to India will begin in September next year.
Sitharaman arrived in Paris Thursday on a three-day visit in the midst of a massive controversy over the procurement of 36 Rafale jets under a Rs 58,000 crore government-to-government deal between India and France. Last evening, Sitharaman held wide-ranging talks with her French counterpart Florence Parly on ways to deepen the strategic and defence cooperation between the two countries.
The talks were held under the framework of the annual Indo-French defence ministerial dialogue which was agreed to during the summit meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron in March.
The two defence ministers comprehensively reviewed the entire gamut of the bilateral defence cooperation, which is a key pillar of the India-France strategic partnership, an official statement said. They also exchanged views on contemporary regional and international developments of mutual interest.
Both sides discussed ways to deepen defence related official as well as operational level interactions. It was agreed to expand the scope and complexity of the regular joint exercises (SHAKTI, VARUNA and GARUDA) in the future, the statement said.
Recognising that India-France partnership in the Indian Ocean Region is important for preserving and promoting the common strategic and security interests, the two leaders noted the continuing implementation of the “Joint Strategic Vision of India-France Cooperation in the Indian Ocean Region”.
It was not immediately known whether the Rafale deal figured in the talks. She also called on French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and discussed issues of bilateral cooperation. In her interaction with the top leaders of the French defence industry, Sitharaman urged them to undertake and expand their defence manufacturing in India under the Make in India initiative as well as promote defence technology and R&D cooperation with Indian stakeholders such as Bharat Dynamics Limited, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, Bharat Electronics Limited, Bharat Earth Movers Limited, Goa Shipyard Limited, Mazagaon Dock Shipbuilders Limited etc.
Sitharaman’s visit to France came in the backdrop of a fierce political backlash between the ruling BJP and Congress over the procurement of the jets. In a report Wednesday, French publication Mediapart said Dassault Aviation, the manufacturer of Rafale, had to choose Ambani’s firm Reliance Defence as its offsets partner in India as a trade-off for getting the deal.
When asked about the allegations, Sitharaman said that offset obligations for the deal are mandatory but not the names of the companies. In a statement, Dassault Aviation said it has “freely chosen to make a partnership with Reliance Group, as it rejected the report by French publication Mediapart”.
The latest report followed former French president Francois Hollande’s comments last month that France was given “no choice” on selection of the Indian partner for Dassault and the Indian government proposed the name of the Indian company. Hollande was the French president when the Rafale deal was sealed.
The Congress has been alleging massive irregularities in the deal, saying the government was procuring each aircraft at a cost of over Rs 1,670 crore as against Rs 526 crore finalised by the UPA government when it was negotiating the deal. The Congress has also been targeting the government over selection of Reliance Defence as an offset partner for Dassault. The government has vehemently rejected the allegations and asserted that it did not have any role in the selection of Reliance Defence.