Indian defence minister slams half-baked report on Rafale

The chief of India’s Congress party Rahul Gandhi on Friday tried to make a half-baked newspaper report on the India-France Rafale fighter jets deal look credible in the dim light of lies.

Citing a cropped copy of a leaked defence ministry note in 2015 suggesting parallel talks by the prime minister’s office (PMO) with the French government on the fighter jets, Rahul chanted his favourite slogan before media that the ‘chowkidar’ (watchman) Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a ‘chor’ (thief).

According to Rahul, the copy of the ministry note published by the daily confirmed what he was saying all along — that Modi was negotiating for industrialist Anil Ambani.

The newspaper report and Rahul’s enthusiastic response came a day after Modi said Congress leaders cannot ever think of a straight arms deal without agents and kickbacks.

In a two-hour speech in Parliament on Thursday, the prime minister said the Congress party is trying to block the deal at the behest of some company which is eyeing fighter jets deal with India.

After Rahul’s media conference, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitaraman revealed the bottom half of the defence note carrying the part of the story untold.

Para four of the note, initially missing, did not mention any meddling by PMO in the Rafale pricing or objection by the defence ministry. The note only expressed concern over talks between PMO and the French government on sovereign guarantee and general terms and conditions.

Then-defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s comments on the so-called ‘parallel talks’ were cropped out by someone with malicious intentions.

Parrikar’s note said the PMO’s office and the French president’s office are ‘monitoring’ (not negotiating) the progress in Rafale talks. The view that the Indian negotiating team’s position was weakening is just an overreaction, the minister said.

Parrikar added that defence secretary G Mohan Kumar may resolve the matter in consultation with principal secretary to the prime minister.

The deleted portions of the defence note could have given a 180 degree turn to the story.

Rubbishing the report, Sitaraman told parliament that if the newspaper’s intention was to bring out the truth, they should have published the entire page instead of being selective. For a balanced report, the journalist should have sought her response, Sitaraman said.

Raising the Rafale issue on the basis of a report is like flogging a dead horse, she said, adding that opposition parties are playing into the hands of multinational companies having vested interests.

Air Marshal SBP Sinha, who led the Indian negotiating team, called the newspaper report false and misleading.

The note was initiated by SK Sharma who was not part of the negotiating team. Sinha wanted to know at whose behest Sharma was acting.

When India desperately needs advanced fighter jets, it is sad that the deal is being politicised, Sinha said.

Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said Rahul may be working with enemies of the state since he is opposing the best of all possible deals to acquire Rafale jets that can take Indian Air Force to new heights.