Dassault, HAL couldn’t go together: Sitharaman on Rafale deal

New Delhi: Putting the blame on the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government for not concluding the Rafale deal in time, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Tuesday accused the Congress for keeping Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) out of the multimillion deal by delaying the negotiations.

She further pointed out that Dassault, the company that makes Rafale, and HAL, Indian public sector company, could not agree on several terms during their negotiations in the previous government and it was the UPA government’s responsibility to create conducive atmosphere to help a pact between HAL and Dassault.

“The deal did not happen during the UPA (regime). Also, one more thing that did not happen during the UPA regime was the fact that between Dassault and HAL they could not agree on production terms. As a result, HAL and Rafale could not go together. Doesn’t that very clearly say who didn’t go together with HAL? Agreement did not happen during the UPA regime.

So, isn’t it obvious that the interest of HAL could have really been taken care of even during that time? Neither HAL’s interest nor Indian Air Force’s (IAF) interest were taken care of by the UPA government,” Sitharaman said during an interaction with women journalists at the Indian Women’s Press Corps.

Terming UPA’s Rafale deal as a “non-agreement”, the Defence Minister said that there can be no comparison between UPA and National Democratic Alliance (NDA) terms of negotiations since the pact never happened during the UPA term.

“If the agreement between Dassault and HAL didn’t happen, the facts are before us. What we (NDA government) have done is, we talked to Dassault, Prime Minister Narendra Modi went (to France) in 2015 and an agreement was signed in 2016. It was an inter-governmental agreement based procurement of 36 aircraft in ready-to-fly condition. So, all these attributes which are being put to us about HAL, is not for us to answer. It was for the UPA to respond that if the negotiations were going on between Dassault and HAL, why things did not happen? The government could have done anything to strengthen HAL to make sure that the HAL’s terms were appealing enough for Dassault. This entire issue of HAL not being chosen happened during their (UPA’s) time. All these questions should actually go to them. You (UPA) have not taken care of HAL,” the Defence Minister said.

The Congress has blamed the NDA government for procuring Rafale fighter jets from Dassault at a higher price than what it was negotiating. The Congress has also alleged that the NDA government has helped a particular industrialist in the Rafale deal through offset clause instead of supporting public sector unit HAL.

Responding to these allegations, Sitharaman said that during the UPA term rules were made which allowed the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) to choose its partner from private or public sector. “So, do you say that your rule was wrong?” the Defence Minister said. She further clarified that the government did not ask Dassault to choose any particular company for its offset agreements since it was a commercial deal between two private parties.

Dismissing the Congress claims that Prime Minister Narendra Modi unilaterally finalised the deal with his French counterpart Fran├žois Hollande during his visit to France in 2015, Sitharaman said that Prime Minister Modi only initiated the talks and left the negotiations to experts and technical teams.

“Prime Minister doesn’t talk details of what has got to be negotiated. He leaves it on the experts from the ministry to talk on the matter. The Prime Minister in 2015 did not go to (France) to announce the deal. He initiated a process which, if at the end of the day has to become a deal, would have to be cleared by the Cabinet Committee of Security (CCS). In April 2015, there was just an expression of interest between the two parties — the Prime Minister and the President (of France). But the actual working up of the deal happened one-and-a-half years later — between April 2015 till August 2016. After the negotiations concluded, in August 2016, the CCS gave its approval after which in September the deal was signed,” Sitharaman said.

Senior Congress leader and former Defence minister AK Antony on Tuesday morning accused the government of suppressing facts and compromising national security. “Recently, the Law Minister claimed that in the new agreement, aircraft are 9 per cent cheaper than in the UPA deal. The Finance Minister said it is 20 per cent cheaper. An IAF officer said it is 40 per cent cheaper. Why did they not buy more than 126 if it was cheaper?” Antony asked.

Responding to Antony’s statement Sitharaman said: “Mr AK Antony is a very senior leader. He has been in this (Defence) ministry before me for considerable period. He has done all the negotiations. We have also done our negotiations. Now the goalpost is being shifted. There are time lines for purchase of fighter aircraft and these are not over-the-counter purchases. Prime Minister Modi quickly assessed the need of IAF and asked for 36 as they were urgently needed, instead of waiting for more.”

She added that these 36 numbers were fixed after careful consideration of the fact that IAF squadron strength had depleted from 42 to 33. She stressed that the government is procuring these 36 Rafale jets at a price that are 9 per cent less keeping in mind the escalation and all other add-ons. She further said that the government has now floated a Request For Information (RFI) for purchase of 110 more fighter aircraft.

On the Opposition’s demand for Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to examine the Rafale deal, Sitharaman said the political parties should examine the answers and the information provided by the government in Parliament before seeking JPC.