The Defence Ministry expressed its strong reservations to "parallel negotiations" conducted by the Prime Minister's Office with France on the multi-billion dollar Rafale fighet jet deal, according to a 2015 internal note accessed by The Hindu. The damning note has provided fresh ammo to the opposition Congress which has relentlessly attacked the government, accusing PM Narendra Modi of signing an overpriced deal for 36 Rafale jets to help industrialist Anil Ambani.
The note - dated November 24, 2015 - that was brought to the attention of then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said the position taken by the PM's office was "contradictory to the stand taken by Defence Ministry and the negotiating team." The strongly-worded note, prepared by then Defence Secretary G Mohan Kumar, further states that "it is desirable that such discussions be avoided by the PMO as it undermines our negotiating position seriously."
The note also says "we may advise PMO that any Officers who are not part of Indian Negotiating Team may refrain from having parallel parlays [parleys] with the officers of French Government". It further says that "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."
Congress chief Rahul Gandhi, who has repeatedly targeted PM Modi over claims about the defence ministry's objections to the Rafale deal, said, "We have been saying for more than a year that the prime minister is directly involved in the Rafale scam. Now, today, in The Hindu newspaper, it is black and white... that the prime minister himself was carrying out a parallel negotiation with the French... It has been proven now that the watchman (chowkidaar) is the thief (chor)."
Rejecting the report as "selective" and "slanderous", Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, amid noisy protests in parliament, said, "They are flogging a dead horse. Periodical enquiries by the PMO cannot be construed as interference."
She drew attention to the handwritten remarks of her predecessor Manohar Parrikar at the bottom of the note - a detail not included in the news report. In his remarks, Manohar Parrikar said the PM's office and the French President's Office were "monitoring the progress of the issue which was an outcome of the summit meeting". The concerns expressed by the defence secretary G Mohan Kumar, "appears to be an over-reaction", the minister wrote.
The Rafale deal was announced in 2016 after PM Modi's talks in Paris with then French president Francois Hollande.
The Congress contends that the government had finalised an overpriced deal to benefit Anil Ambani, whose firm Reliance Defence, despite lacking experience, was recommended as an offset partner for Dassault, the company manufacturing the Rafale aircraft. Both Dassault and the government have denied the Congress allegations.
Those allegations received a boost after Francois Hollande, in an interview last year, said that France had no role in the selection of Anil Ambani's company for the offset clause.
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