NEW DELHI: Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Friday attacked the Congress for leveling “shameful and unfounded” allegations against the Rs 59,000 crore (7.87 billion Euro) contract for 36 French Rafale fighters, while stressing that the previous UPA regime had shown abject indecisiveness by failing to conclude the deal despite realising it was a critical operational necessity for the IAF.
The minister, flanked by defence secretary Sanjay Mitra and IAF deputy chief Air Marshal R Nambiar at a press conference in South Block on Friday, said the cost negotiated per aircraft by the NDA government was “much lower” than what was being negotiated by the UPA government after Rafale had emerged as the L-1 (lowest bidder) in the MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) competition.
But Sitharaman, despite repeated and pointed questions, did not provide the “comparative costs per aircraft” between the 36-fighter contract inked by the NDA government in September 2016 and the original 126-fighter deal under negotiation during the UPA government’s tenure.
The Congress has claimed the “per aircraft pricing” in the 126 MMRCA project, under which 108 of the jets were to be manufactured by defence PSU Hindustan Aeronautics in India after transfer of technology (ToT), stood at Rs 526 crore.
As per the 36-fighter deal inked by the NDA government, which does not include any ToT, each jet comes for around Rs 710 crore. But the per unit cost zooms to almost Rs 1,640 crore if the overall deal is taken into account, which includes a deadly weapons package, all spares and costs for 75% fleet availability and performance-based logistics support for five years, among other things, as reported by TOI earlier.
Slamming the Congress for “bickering over the price” now in a “disservice” to the armed forces, Sitharaman said she could “any time prove that the deal we obtained is far better than what they were negotiating…I am not shying away from giving the figures” and added the defence secretary would share the details later.
The minister also rubbished allegations of procedural violations, stating the Rafale deal was signed with “the Cabinet Committee on Security in the loop” and her predecessor Manohar Parrikar’s active participation. “All procedures were scrupulously followed. Before the inter-governmental agreement with France, it was cleared by the CCS,” she said.
“Through the entire decade 2004-2014, the UPA government was unable to come to a decision to strengthen our defence preparedness. This potentially compromised national security interests,” she said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after the NDA government took over in 2014, “quickly recognised the seriousness of the situation” to go in for the emergency procurement of the 36 Rafales in a flyaway condition. It was not financially prudent to negotiate ToT for just 36 fighters, she said.
Sitharaman also rejected Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi‘s demand that PM Modi must be questioned for “changing the Rafale deal to benefit a businessman” in the backdrop of fighter manufacturer Dassault Aviation setting up a joint venture with Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence to discharge the 50% offsets in the deal.
“No offset contracts have been signed so far. And, it does not require permission from the government if two private firms come together, which is a matter of their own commercial prudence,” she said.