Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, in a television interview on Tuesday evening, did not rule out buying more Rafale fighters, over and above the 36 that Prime Minister Narendra Modi requested the French government for during his visit to Paris in April.
On Thursday, Parrikar had declared that buying 90 less Rafale fighter than the 126 that was earlier planned, would save him money to buy more Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) for the Indian Air Force (IAF).
"I have saved the cost of 90 Rafales," Parrikar had said in New Delhi.
Yet, on Tuesday, the defence minister backed off from that statement, declining to clarify whether the Rafale purchase would be capped at 36 fighters.
"I'm not saying we will buy more Rafale; I'm not saying we will not buy more," said Parrikar.
All that he confirmed is that French vendors would have to discharge offsets worth 50 per cent of the contract value; and that the final price for the Rafale would be cheaper than what Dassault had quoted for 18 ready-built fighters in its commercial bid in the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) tender.
"In the MMRCA tender, Dassault was to supply 18 Rafales in flyaway condition, and also build 90 fighters in Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). Now Dassault is freed of the responsibility to 'Make in India'. The price they now supply the Rafale at should not just be lower, but at least 30-35 per cent lower than the price which included 'Make in India," says Pushpinder Singh, aerospace industry expert.
Parrikar says negotiations with France will start next week. On Monday, he had told Indian Express that the contract would be finalized in 2-3 months and the first Rafales would be supplied to the IAF within one year.
Parrikar also did a volte-face on the mountain strike corps (MSC), repudiating an earlier statement that it was being cut down by half to one-third.
On April 13, Parrikar had told Doordarshan: "I think we'll have to work out the size of it properly. It cannot be the size initially approved. It has to be slightly trimmed down." Soon after that, his ministry said that, instead of raising a 70,000-person corps for Rs 88,000 crore, the new corps would have half that number and cost Rs 38,000 crore over next eight years.
On Tuesday Parrikar said the MSC was being pared down only as a temporary measure because of a funding shortfall. When funds became available, the MSC would be built up to the strength planned by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, he clarified.
The defence minister also created another deadline for himself, promising on Tuesday that his ministry would finalise a proposal for a "chief of defence staff," or CDS, and send it up for cabinet sanction by end-June.
In the interview, Parrikar appeared slightly confused about whether the tri-service chief would be a five-star "chief of defence staff," as recommended by a Group of Minister in 2001; or a four-star "permanent chairman of the chiefs of staff committee" recommended by the Naresh Chandra Committee in 2012.
"What does a name matter?" he responded to a query by the interviewer. He added the new post would be significantly more powerful than the current three-star "chief of integrated defence staff" that coordinates tri-service planning.
Questioned on "one rank, one pension" (OROP), on which the government has slipped several deadlines, Parrikar stated it would be cleared in a "reasonable" time frame. The proposal was with the finance ministry, he said, and since they had not come back to him with any queries, he assumed it would be cleared. In January, Parrikar had stated that OROP would be implemented by July, within a year of it being publicly accepted by the new government. Parrikar reassured ex-servicemen that OROP would be implemented in full; and that arrears would be paid from April 2014.