Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, replying to an acrimonious debate in parliament on the Rafale jet deal today, accused the Congress of scrapping an earlier deal when it was in power because it “didn’t get the money” and ignored social security in favour of its “treasury security”.
Referring to the Bofors scandal that erupted when the Congress was in power in the 1980s, Ms Sitharaman said: “Bofors was a scam, Rafale is not. It is a decision in national interest. They lost an election because of Bofors. Rafale will bring Prime Minister Narendra Modi back.”
Defending the 36-jet deal, the minister also alleged that the Congress was shedding crocodile tears on HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) not getting the offset contract with Rafale-maker Dassault as the party did nothing to scale up the capacity of the state-run company.
“You stopped the deal, forgetting that the Air Force was suffering. You didn’t conclude the deal because it didn’t suit you. The deal didn’t get you money. They did not intend to buy the aircraft till something else was done. There is something different between defence deal and deal in defence,” Ms Sitharaman said in her response to the three-day debate.
“We don’t do defence dealings. We deal in defence with national security as our priority.”
The Congress alleges that the BJP-led government scrapped a deal for 126 aircraft negotiated by the previous UPA government to go for an overpriced deal for 36 aircraft only to help Anil Ambani, whose inexperienced defence company bagged an offset contract with Dassault.
Ms Sitharaman said: “Our price of the basic Rafale aircraft is Rs. 670 crores, which is nine per cent cheaper than what the UPA deal would have cost. That is 737 crores.”
She said the assumption that the Rafale fighters were available off the shelf was “mistaken”, referring to the 126 aircraft deal. Eighteen of those jets were to be delivered in fly-away condition.
The minister accused the Congress of misleading the country by saying that the current government reduced 126 Rafale jets to 36. “The Congress was supposed to buy 18 in fly-away condition, the NDA raised that to 36,” she said.
She also emphasized that unlike the previous deal, which never materialized, the delivery of first Rafale aircraft will happen in September 2019 and the last aircraft of 36 jets will be delivered in 2022.
“By 2014… you couldn’t even get these 18 aircrafts. Why? There wasn’t a deal? Today you get up to say what sense of urgency?”
“The Indian Air Force always advises government to buy two squadrons, which is 36 aircraft instead of 18, in case of emergency purchases,” the Minister said.
Earlier, Congress president Rahul Gandhi said there would be a criminal investigation into the Rafale deal if his party comes to power in this year’s national elections. He said Prime Minister Narendra Modi was “running away” from the questions posed to him. “If we come to power in 2019, there will be criminal investigation and people responsible will be punished,” he said.
The opposition has demanded a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the deal even though the Supreme Court recently gave a clean chit to the government.