The Congress on Friday upped the ante on its demand for a joint parliamentary committee (JPC) probe in the Rafale fighter jet deal. This was after a news report published in The Hindu revealed the defence ministry had objected to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) conducting parallel negotiations with the French side to seal the deal in 2015.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi held a press conference on Friday, where he said the report was proof the PMO intervened in the deal. “It is absolutely clear the prime minister (PM) has stolen Rs 30,000 crore of your money, bypassed a process, and given it to his friend Anil Ambani," Gandhi said. He added it was clear the PM was “directly involved in the Rafale scam”, and it is proven now the watchman (chowkidar) is the thief (chor).
Defending the government in the Lok Sabha, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman dismissed the media report. She accused the Opposition of playing into the hands of multinational companies, and vested interests. This accusation came after Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge demanded a JPC probe, citing the news report.
"They are flogging a dead horse. Periodical enquiries by the PMO cannot be construed as interference," she clarified. The Opposition raised the issue in both the Houses, with the Rajya Sabha adjourned for the day. The Lok Sabha, too, was briefly adjourned when the Congress, and others, staged a walkout as the House took up the discussion on the interim Budget.
According to the news report, the then Defence Secretary, G Mohan Kumar had brought the fact of this parallel negotiation to the attention of the then defence minister, Manohar Parrikar. In the note dated November 24, 2015, Kumar said such parallel discussions by the PMO had “weakened the negotiating position of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and the Indian negotiating team”.
In the note, the ministry had protested, saying the PMO's position was “contradictory to the one by the MoD and the negotiating team.” Kumar had made this official notation with himself: “RM (Raksha Mantri) may pl. see. It is desirable that such discussions be avoided by the PMO, as it undermines our negotiating position seriously.”
According to the note The Hindu reproduced, the details of the parallel negotiations came to the ministry’s notice from a letter dated October 23, 2015 from Stephen Reb, head, French negotiating team.
The note stated, “We may advise the PMO that any officer, who is not part of the Indian negotiating team, may refrain from having parallel parleys with the officers of the French government”. It suggested, “In case the PMO is not confident about the negotiations by the MoD, a revised modality of negotiations to be led by the PMO at appropriate level may be adopted.”
Attacking the Centre, Gandhi remarked, “Whatever inquiry you want to do, you do it. You implement the law. Robert Vadra, P Chidambaram — you implement the law on everyone. (Their is) no problem. But, you also (have to) give answers on the Rafale matter.” BJP leaders, including Prakash Javadekar, termed Gandhi's allegations as another "lie from his lie-manufacturing factory". Sitharaman said Parrikar had replied to the letter asking the official to remain "calm", as everything was "alright". In her suo motu statement in the House, Sitharaman alleged the then chairperson of the National Advisory Council Sonia Gandhi ran the PMO regularly during the UPA regime. “Was that not interference?” she asked.
Later, she also questioned the newspaper’s “ethics of journalism” for publishing only part of the noting, but cropping out the reply by the then defence minister.
N Ram, Chairman of The Hindu Group, and the author of the report, said he did not need a certificate from Sitharaman. “The story is complete in itself because we have not dealt with Manohar Parrikar's role in this, and that needs investigation," Ram said. He said the release of the ‘complete’ note has authenticated the story. Parrikar’s noting was made a month after that of the defence secretary.
Furthermore, Trinamool Congress’ Saugata Roy alleged that "notorious" National Security Advisor Ajit Doval was conducting parallel negotiations in Paris, undermining the bargaining power of the government. In his comments outside the House, former defence minister A K Antony said it was “shocking” the PMO was conducting such negotiations, and alleged it had "special interests to protect". “In defence negotiations, only the defence ministry is involved,” Antony said.
“Modi has consistently undermined the Air Force and MoD in the Rafale deal for corruption, to benefit his cronies. His actions have hurt the public exchequer, and damaged national security. These facts have been hidden from the Supreme Court, where a review petition is pending," CPI (M) General Secretary Sitaram Yechury tweeted.
“In the light of today’s expose on Rafale, 'independent' CBI should raid the PMO, seize all the files related to Rafale, and make arrests just like they raided my office and residence, that of the Kolkata police commissioner,” Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal said.