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‘Dead-horse’ Rafale alive and kicking

Government's firefighters try to counter revelations of PMO's parallel negotiations in Rafale deal

By TT Bureau in New Delhi

  • Published 9.02.19, 3:02 AM
  • Updated 9.02.19, 3:02 AM
Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman outside Parliament on Friday.
Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman outside Parliament on Friday. Picture by Prem Singh

The Rafale scandal that was labelled a “dead horse” by defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman was flying by Friday evening, lent a kiss of long life by headline managers in the government.

The Narendra Modi government had woken up to a fresh crisis with The Hindu newspaper publishing a former defence secretary’s file noting in December 2015 that said a parallel negotiation by the Prime Minister’s Office in the Rafale deal should be avoided as it “undermines our negotiating position seriously”.

The revelation with documentary proof was damaging because the government had all along been saying that the Rafale negotiations were conducted by the Indian Negotiating Team, headed by a deputy chief of air staff of the Indian Air Force. That the PMO had played a role was never stated unequivocally in public.

The file noting by then defence secretary G. Mohan Kumar was made on a letter issued in the name of the deputy secretary (air II). Mohan made the noting on December 1, 2015, to draw the attention of then defence minister Manohar Parrikar.

On Friday, as a fresh furore erupted, Sitharaman told the Lok Sabha: “They are flogging a dead horse. Periodical enquiries by the PMO cannot be construed as interference.”

Soon after, the government’s fire-fighters appeared to have gone to work. A news agency accessed the “full page”, which was beamed relentlessly by TV channels. The newspaper had published a redacted version of the page.

Mohan too said that it was “absolutely wrong” to say that the PMO was conducting parallel negotiations.

In the “full page”, below Mohan’s noting was one by Parrikar himself, jotted down on January 11, 2016, over a month after the defence secretary made his concern known.

Parrikar wrote: “It appears that PMO and French presidents office are monitoring the progress of the issue which was an outcome of the summit meeting (between Francois Holland and Modi in April 2015 — addition by this newspaper). Para 5 appears to be an over reaction. Def Sec may resolve issue/ matter in consultation with Pr. Sec to P.M.”

The letter’s “Para 5” — the operative paragraph that rekindled the Rafale debate — states: “It is, therefore, clear that such parallel discussions by the PMO has weakened the negotiating position of MoD and Indian Negotiating Team. We may advise PMO that any Officers who are not part of the Indian Negotiating Team may refrain from having parallel parleys with the officers of the French government. In case the PMO is not confident about the outcome of negotiations being carried out by the MoD, a revised modality of negotiations to be led by PMO at appropriate level may be adopted in the case.”

Some of the TV channels sought to project Parrikar’s noting as a clean chit, overlooking the fact that the minister is part of the government and his comments do not amount to an exoneration.

Worse, for the government, Parrikar’s noting more or less confirmed a PMO role. Besides, Parrikar, who had told Doordarshan in April 2015 that the decision on the deal was Modi’s, took care to mention in the noting that “the issue was the outcome of the summit meeting” of the Prime Minister.

The document further states: “We do not have any record or any knowledge that any MoD official has conveyed to JS (joint secretary) to PMO that any arrangement other than Sovereign/ Government or Bank Guarantees is adequate and the implementing court for a decision by arbitration tribunal shall not be specifically Indian. The position cited by General Reb (Stephen Reb, the head of the French team) as outcome of discussions with JS to PMO are contradictory to the stand taken by MoD and the negotiating team in both these aspects.”

The Centre had revealed in the apex court that the French had not issued a sovereign guarantee. The document suggests taking the deal without the sovereign guarantee was a PMO move.

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