Hindu report proves Narendra Modi govt abruptly altered modalities of Rafale negotiations; Manohar Parrikar ignored objections

The particular example of the feline species known as the Rafale deal is out of the bag again, with a report in The Hindu detailing serious irregularities vitiating its negotiation. This comes after a raft of reports have revealed a mountain of other problems concerning the dodgy deal.

The fundamental issue flagged by the report was that the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) began a parallel stream of negotiation which ‘undermined’ the bargaining position of the ministry of defence team that had thus far been conducting the negotiations.

Hindu report proves Narendra Modi govt abruptly altered modalities of Rafale negotiations; Manohar Parrikar ignored objections

A file image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former defence minister Manohar Parrikar. PTI

The report shows that the then defence secretary, G Mohan Kumar, protested the PMO’s parallel negotiations strenuously, noting: "It is desirable that such discussions be avoided by the PMO as it undermines our negotiating position seriously." Kumar's position was iterated in a note prepared by the deputy secretary (Air-II) and reiterated by the joint secretary and acquisitions manager and the director-general (acquisition). These objections did not appear to have cut any ice with the PMO by all accounts.

Until the PMO butted in, without reference to the defence ministry, the deal was being negotiated by the Indian Negotiating Team headed by Air Marshal SBP Sinha. It had no inkling that the PMO had opened its own channel until it received a letter from the head of the French negotiating team, General Stephen Reb, to the effect that a joint secretary in the PMO had had a telephonic conversation with a diplomatic advisor to the French defence minister on 20 October, 2015.

It was only when the defence ministry and Sinha separately brought up the French negotiator’s letter that the PMO confirmed that the conversation had happened and that the French advisor had spoken to the PMO on the advice of the French president’s office to discuss the Rafale deal. It did not, from all accounts, make any reference to who exactly had advised a joint secretary in the PMO to discuss a deal already in an advanced stage of negotiation.

Once this telephonic conversation came to light, the defence ministry sent a note, dated 24 November, 2015, to the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar bringing this parallel negotiating process to his attention. It said that the ministry ought to ‘advise’ officials in the PMO who were not part of the negotiating team to refrain from having parallel parleys with the French side. If the PMO was not confident of the outcome of the defence ministry’s negotiations, it added, ‘a revised modality of negotiations to be led by the PMO at appropriate level may be adopted’. We shall return to this point.

The note also pointed out that the parallel negotiations would be detrimental to India’s interests because the French side could take advantage by ‘interpreting such discussions to their benefit’, especially so since the PMO was taking positions contrary to that of the official Indian negotiating team.

It gave the concrete example of the issue of a sovereign or bank guarantee. The Indian negotiating team had been insisting that the French government provide a sovereign guarantee or a bank guarantee as is the standard operating procedure in inter-governmental defence deals. In his letter, Reb, however, made it clear that no sovereign/bank guarantee had been provisioned in the conversation between the PMO and the French diplomatic advisor. A ‘letter of comfort’, which is non-binding unlike a guarantee in the event that the supplier fails to give satisfaction, would provide ‘sufficient assurances of the proper implementation of the supply protocol by the industrial suppliers’. National Security Advisor Ajit Doval also pushed this line from the Indian side in another set of parallel negotiations. The PMO also took a contrary, and damaging, position on the arbitration process.

The report in The Hindu makes it crystal clear that after the Modi government came to power the modalities of the negotiation process was abruptly changed to the detriment of Indian interests. But this change was not formalised as suggested by the defence ministry, if the PMO was uncertain about the ongoing negotiations. The change was made by stealth. And the government was definitely economical with the truth, as has now come to light, in its submissions to the Supreme Court, in which it claimed, that a seven-member team headed by the deputy chief of air staff had handled the negotiations. In what appears to be a case of convenient amnesia, the government failed to mention the PMO’s role in substantially influencing the negotiations by changing protocols established by the negotiating team. in the teeth of the defence ministry’s opposition.

The question is who authorised at least two parallel tracks of negotiations and why the defence ministry agreed to let the negotiations be hijacked by the PMO? As for the latter question, it is clear that the defence ministry was clear in its objections and that its head, the defence secretary, was categorical in his view that the PMO must not interfere. That can only mean that the defence minister took the call of allowing the PMO in by stealth despite being made aware of its sub rosa role and his ministry’s objections.

That conclusion, in turn, answers the first question. It could only have been on the authority of the prime minister himself that parallel tracks of negotiations were conducted and it is more than likely that the defence minister’s consent to this was obtained on the directives of the same person – the prime minister.

Given that the deal finally signed by Modi and then French President Francois Hollande, at the very least, was in some ways damaging to Indian interests, it’s more than time for this government to come clean. It has especially to explain why it made no mention of the PMO’s role to the Supreme Court.

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Updated Date: Feb 08, 2019 14:28:33 IST

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