The PMO has no experts of the kind needed to select an advanced combat aircraft.
The latest revelations on the controversial Rafale fighter deal — through a newspaper report — are damaging to the government. About 10 months before India and France signed the agreement for 36 aircraft in September 2016, an internal defence ministry note spoke of “parallel parlays (sic)” being conducted by the Prime Minister’s Office which, it said, “weakened the negotiating position of the MoD and the Indian Negotiating Team”.
The then defence secretary forwarded this note to defence minister Manohar Parrikar with his observation: “RM (Raksha Mantri) may pl see. It is desirable that such discussions be avoided by the PMO as it undermines our negotiating position seriously.”
As per established procedure, all aspects of the negotiation with a foreign party on defence purchases are conducted by the Indian negotiating team, a body of technical, financial and legal experts. It is the violation of this procedure that raises serious concerns.
The PMO has no experts of the kind needed to select an advanced combat aircraft. Was it consulting its own experts, bypassing the body of specialists assembled with care, as norms require. This would be unconventional, to say the least. And whose idea was this, anyway?
The current defence minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, chose to make a political reply to the revelations on Friday, after Congress president Rahul Gandhi cited the news report to return to attack the government on the Rafale issue. She hit out at the Congress Party and sharply criticised the newspaper which had carried the fresh revelations. A reply relying on facts and substance would have been more reassuring to the Indian public as the `60,000-crore Rafale purchase is the most expensive defence acquisition made. The minister said the Opposition was “flogging a dead horse... when periodically PMO enquires about the progress of any work (it) cannot be construed as interference”. There is a regrettable cavalier air about such a reply.
The Rafale issue is a key subject the Opposition has raised and the matter is by no means a “dead horse”. Besides, the senior defence ministry officials expressed their concern over “parallel parleys” conducted by the PMO, that is, parallel negotiations, which was undermining the Indian negotiating stance. This is not the same as the PMO making “periodic enquiries”. In any case, such “enquiries” — presumably to review progress — must be made from our own defence ministry, not from the French side. While replying, Ms Sitharaman may have relied on her predecessor’s response to the concerns raised. He had called them an “over-reaction”. If so, it’s time for an impartial inquiry body question him, the relevant defence ministry and PMO officials. Late last year, the government suppressed the notings of concern from the Supreme Court, which held that procedures were followed. Would this have been its reaction if the full facts were known?