Congress charge on Rafale deal politically motivated: Sitharaman

The government on Friday rejected Congress' allegations of irregularities in the deal for buying 36 Rafale fighter jets, with Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and two other Union Ministers calling the charges "politically motivated and false".

In a press conference held in the Defence Ministry, Sitharaman said that the Narendra Modi government had to go for the aircraft procurement as an "emergency" because the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government failed to conclude a deal for 126 Rafale jets in a decade.

The Congress called the Defence Minister's argument a "shoddy cover-up" and questioned the rationale of holding the presser at the Defence Ministry.

Sitharaman accused the Congress of doing a "disservice" to the armed forces by failing to ink the deal even after decade-long negotiations when it was in power at the Centre.

"The decision to buy 36 Rafale jets was taken to address the urgent need of the IAF (Indian Air Force) because the earlier United Progressive Alliance government did not pay attention to defence preparedness of the armed forces... it (UPA) was indecisive for 10 years to address this critical necessity of fighters for the IAF," the Minister said.

"The allegations are politically motivated since they are not able to find any corruption in this government," she added.

Sitharaman said the National Democratic Alliance government went for "emergency" procurement of the fighter jets, adding that the deal it cut for 36 aircraft was "far better" than what the UPA "would have obtained for 126".

"Comparison in the price is wrong. The price we arrived at is lesser. To bicker over price as though they served preparedness... it is shameful."

Sitharaman said that the deal was signed after approval from the Cabinet Committee on Security and following all due processes.

She also said that a "transfer of technology" was not sought in this deal as it was not viable and it could have escalated the price.

"It is simple economics -- when you are talk of buying 126 aircraft, asking for transfer of technology makes sense. When you are going for emergency procurement of 36 jets, it does not make sense for transfer of technology to be included... there was no benefit from this transfer, the price would have increased and not reduced," the Defence Minister said.

Sitharaman said that, so far, no agreement on offsets has been signed under the deal.

Apart from Sitharaman, Railway Minister Piyush Goyal and Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju also defended the deal.

Goyal, commenting on Congress' allegation of a private firm benefiting out of the deal, said on that any agreement between private firms is independent of the government and the latter is not bound to buy what they make.

"We are trying to promote defence manufacturing through strategic partnerships. If any company ties with another private company, the government has no role to play. You can also tie up with someone under the FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) policy. The government has nothing to do with it," Goyal said.

Minister of State for Home Kiren Rijiju meanwhile criticised the UPA government's "irresponsible" attitude towards strengthening Indian defence forces.

"Can a party which ruled for five decades behave so irresponsibly? The Congress-led government cared the least to strengthen our forces and (was interested) more in commissions," Rijiju said in a tweet.

Congress Spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala, however, called her comments a shoddy cover-up and questioned why Sitharaman called a press conference at the Defence Ministry over a "political issue".

"Repeated attempts at shoddy cover-up and complete non-transparency in the purchase of Rafale aircraft have raised serious questions on the 'national interests' and 'national security' points raised by the Modi government," Surjewala said.

"India's defence preparedness cannot be the subject matter of politicking nor can the sacrosanct premises of the Defence Ministry be used for political mudslinging as is being done by the Modi government and its Defence Minister," he said.

The Congress has accused that the government negotiated an overpriced deal to buy 36 Rafale jets from France for Rs 58,000 crore, causing "insurmountable loss" of taxpayers' money.

The Congress said the government had agreed to pay for each Rafale aircraft three times the price negotiated in 2012 by the then UPA government.

Air Force chief, Air Chief Marshal Birender Singh Dhanoa, on Thursday brushed aside the charges, saying the deal negotiated by the current government was "better than the one finalised by the then UPA government".

"We have negotiated a better deal in the Rafale contract than what was in the MMRCA contract (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) finalised during the UPA rule... It is a cheaper deal," he told reporters at the Adampur Air Force station near Jalandhar in Punjab.


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