Nirmala Sitharaman heads to France amid controversy over procurement of 36 Rafale jets from Dassault Aviation

Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will leave for France on Wednesday night on a three-day visit amid controversy around the procurement of 36 Rafale jets from French aerospace major Dassault Aviation. Official sources said Sitharaman will hold wide-ranging talks with her French counterpart Florence Parly on ways to deepen strategic cooperation and also deliberate on major regional and global issues of mutual interests.

Nirmala Sitharaman heads to France amid controversy over procurement of 36 Rafale jets from Dassault Aviation

File image of defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman. AFP

Sitharaman, who will hold with Parly the first edition of defence dialogue, will conclude her visit on Saturday, they said. Sources said besides exploring ways to boost bilateral defence cooperation, Sitharaman will also take stock of progress in the supply of 36 Rafale jets by Dassault to the Indian Air Force under a Rs 58,000-crore deal.

The Rafale deal is a defence agreement signed between the governments of India and France for the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter aircraft in a fly-away condition as a part of the upgrading process of Indian Air Force equipment. The Rafale fighter is a twin-engine Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) manufactured by French aerospace company Dassault Aviation. Indian Air Force had advanced a proposal to buy 126 fighter aircraft in August 2007 and floated a tender. Following this, an invitation was sent to various aviation companies to participate in the bidding process.

Sources said Sitharaman will discuss with Parly ways to expand Indo-French maritime security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region. The two ministers are also likely to deliberate on joint production of military platforms and weapons by the two countries. French president Emmanuel Macron visited India in March during which the two countries decided to expand strategic ties and deepen counter-terror cooperation.

The two sides also inked a strategic pact providing for the use of each other's military facilities including opening naval bases to warships. Modi and Macron also decided to create an annual defence dialogue at the ministerial level to explore ways to further deepen defence and strategic ties.

'Provide details of decision making process'

This comes even as the Supreme Court asked the Centre on Wednesday to provide details of the decision making process in the Rafale deal in a sealed cover by 29 October but clarified that it does not want information on pricing and technical particulars. A bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi said it was not issuing a formal notice to the Centre as it has not considered the averments with regard to the allegations of corruption made in two PILs filed by two separate lawyers.

At the outset, the bench, also comprising justices SK Kaul and KM Joseph asked the Centre what if it sought details of the decision making process without the technical details and the prices of the Rafale fighter jets. Attorney General KK Venugopal, appearing for the Centre, said details on the deal cannot be shown to anybody in the interest of national security and other issues involved in the defence procurement process. The court sought information from the Centre on the decision-making process in the deal in a sealed cover by 29 October and fixed the next hearing on the PILs to 31 October.

"We are not on the issue of pricing and suitability of the Rafale jets but only on the decision-making process," it said. It added that the court was seeking the information only to satisfy itself, without considering the averments made in the petitions. The Centre sought dismissal of the PILs on various grounds. It said they were not public interest litigation petitions and were filed to gain political mileage. Moreover, it added, such issues cannot be reviewed judicially.

The apex court was hearing various petitions seeking directions, including asking the Centre to reveal details of the deal and the comparative prices during the UPA and NDA rule in a sealed cover to the apex court. Congress leader and RTI activist Tehseen Poonawala, who had sought a direction against the Centre on why the Union Cabinet's approval was not sought as part of the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) before signing the procurement deal with France on 23 September, 2016, withdrew his PIL against the fighter jet deal.

In his plea, lawyer Vineet Dhanda referred to the recent "controversy" over the Rs 58,000 crore deal between India and Dassault Aviation, a French company, for purchasing 36 combat jets and sought judicial intervention to put an end to the raging debate. Lawyer ML Sharma, who has sought a stay on the Rafale fighter jet deal, claimed in his plea that the inter-government agreement to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets must be quashed. It was an "outcome of corruption" and not ratified by Parliament under Article 253 (Parliament has power to make any law for implementing any inter-government agreement) of the Constitution, he said.

AAP Rajya Sabha lawmaker Sanjay Singh had also moved the apex court through his lawyer, Dheeraj Kumar Singh, by filing a separate petition and sought the setting up of a Special Investigation Team (SIT) under the supervision of the apex court to probe the Rafale deal. Singh said the SIT should probe the reasons for cancelling the earlier deal entered into by the UPA government for the purchase of 126 fighter jets.

Rahul to meet HAL authorities

Meanwhile, Congress president Rahul Gandhi is set to meet Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) authorities in Bengaluru Saturday to ramp up pressure on the BJP government over the controversial deal, ANI reported.

The Deccan Chronicle reported that Rahul will also address a party workers’ rally in the city. “It will be a quick visit, he will fly down to Bengaluru, head straight to the HAL employees meeting and then address party workers," KPCC president Dinesh Gundurao said, according to the report.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the procurement of a batch of 36 Rafale jets after talks with the then French president Francois Hollande on 10 April, 2015 in Paris. The final deal was sealed on 23 September, 2016. The Congress has been alleging massive irregularities in the deal, saying the government was procuring each aircraft at a cost of over Rs 1,670 crore as against Rs 526 crore finalised by the UPA government when it was negotiating the deal. The Congress has also been targeting the government over the selection of Reliance Defence as an offset partner for Dassault. The government has vehemently rejected the allegations and asserted that it did not have any role in the selection of Reliance Defence.

Last month, Hollande was quoted by French publication Mediapart as saying that France was given "no choice" on the selection of the Indian partner for Dassault and the Indian government proposed the name of Reliance to partner with the French aerospace giant. The former French president's comments triggered a massive political row.

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Oct 11, 2018 08:49:25 IST

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