Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and her ministry have been under attack from the opposition parties, led by the Congress party, over the Rafale deal. The BJP government has been questioned on why it reduced the number of Rafale jets to be procured from the earlier 126, which was negotiated by the UPA government, to now 36. The price of the deal has also become a subject of much debate after the Centre refused to divulge the full-fledged details. In an interview with national daily 'The Indian Express', Sitharaman faced questions on the controversial deal, India's relationship with China, the COMCASA pact, and other issues. Here are the key takeaways from the interview:
1. Bought only 36 Rafale jets as back-end infra didn’t allow for more: Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the government chose to procure 36 Rafale jets instead of 126 as was negotiated by the previous government because infrastructure and other technical requirements of the Indian Air Force (IAF) do not allow for greater induction.
"Every time you induct one squadron, there is a requirement for a lot of other paraphernalia. Given a set of parameters, if you quickly want to induct, two is the ideal." Sitharaman said that "because in ready, flyway condition, that is all you can induct". She also said that it wasn't the first time such a deal had been done.
2. Making the price of Rafale deal public: Asked why she didn't make the price of the deal public as she said she would during a press conference, Sitharaman said she meant only the basic price of the aircraft (Rs 6.7 billion) which had been mentioned in Parliament.
3. Preventing Russians from making rifles in India with the Adani group: Sitharaman said "When it is an Inter-governmental agreement for us to have the production done here and I have the existing capacities for producing guns in India, through my OFBs (Ordnance Factory Board), I would prefer to have them produce it through an OFB. Over and above that if they want to produce with anybody, I have no issues,” she said.
4. Regarding BECA, the third foundational pact with the US: Sitharaman said that India was willing to consider BECA and had asked the US government for its text.
5. On China: The Defence Minister said that there was a "very clear understanding" between the two countries about the defence relationship. She said that although the dialogue between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and China's President Xi Jinping had in Wuhan had formed the foundation of a positive informal advise, there was a difference in perception over the actual LAC (Line of Actual Control) and it causes periodic flashpoints to occur. She also expressed hope that a military hotline between top headquarters of the two armies is established soon.
6. COMCASA pact: Asked about what led to the signing of the Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) pact which had been pending for over 15 years, Sitharaman said the BJP government had sought to strengthen India's defence cooperation and steadily built on that. The COMCASA pact, she said, was signed as a result of the relationship the two countries had formed over the past two years and later built on it.
7. Defence Modernisation: The Defence Minister said that CNCs (commercial negotiation committees) are working at a "feverish pace" and that the government was pushing them hard to get procurements moving faster. Sitharaman said her government wasn't lagging behind in big-ticket defence procurement but had missed out the first two years of the government which were spent "in assessing, what happened to the defence procurement".
8. Nepal Army chief skipping the BIMSTEC military exercise in Pune: Sitharaman said it wasn't a snub but that the new army chief, Purna Chandra Thapa, who has recently appointed, was bound by genuine protocol and customary issues.