Sitharaman claims PMO only made 'periodic enquiries' into Rafale talks, but Parrikar's note proves otherwise

  • The Hindu's report on the Rafale deal has raised the political temperature both inside and outside the Lok Sabha

  • It has emerged that the PMO had interfered in the negotiations on the Rafale pricing, which the defence ministry had objected to

  • Nirmala Sitharaman has dismissed the report, saying that the PMO's 'enquiries' cannot be considered interference

The report on the Rafale deal carried by The Hindu on Friday has unsurprisingly raised the political temperature both inside and outside the Lok Sabha. There is no question that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Central government is furiously back-pedalling now. But it should know that it has been exposed, and its rhetoric, however brave, isn't washing particularly well.

Let's begin by clearing some areas of confusion. The leader of the Indian negotiating team, Air Marshal SBP Sinha, now retired, has rejected claims of interference — if it can be labelled that — by the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and that it was engaged in parallel negotiations with the French government. He also claimed that the official in the Ministry of Defence who initiated the note flagging the said interference was not part of the negotiating team and had no locus standi in the matter.

There is also an aspersion about motive. "It is unclear at whose behest this note was written," Sinha said, referring to the defence ministry note that said the PMO's parallel track had undermined the negotiating position of the Indian team. The Air Marshal also said that no one in the team was aware of this supposed note, and that he came to know about it only after reading the report by The Hindu.

 Sitharaman claims PMO only made periodic enquiries into Rafale talks, but Parrikars note proves otherwise

File image of a Rafale fighter jet. Wikimedia Commons

The then defence secretary G Mohan Kumar also dismissed the allegation of the PMO's alleged parallel negotiations as "absolutely wrong". The official negotiating team had headed all the price negotiations, he said, adding that his ministry's note had only raised the matter of a sovereign (or bank) guarantee.

In effect, both questioned the veracity of the report by The Hindu and the inferences it draws, but neither have rebutted the foundation of the report, its factual basis. Kumar said the "accusation" against the PMO is wrong because the price of the aircraft to be bought from Dassault Aviation was wholly negotiated by the negotiating team. But nowhere does the newspaper report allege that the PMO had interfered in the negotiations over the pricing of the fighter jet.

The report only mentioned precisely what he said, that the PMO had interfered in the matters of sovereign guarantee and arbitration arrangements. Kumar has not denied that he had noted on the file, for the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar's attention, "It is desirable that such discussions be avoided by the PMO as it undermines our negotiating position seriously". This was in reference to the phone conversation between a joint secretary in the PMO and a diplomatic advisor to the French defence ministry.

Moreover, though Sinha rejected the accusation that the PMO was involved in parallel negotiations and revealed that neither he nor the other members of his team knew about the note, he did not deny that he first came to know that the PMO had involved itself in the matter of sovereign guarantee only after the head of the French negotiating team, General Stephen Reb, wrote a letter mentioning the conversation. He has also not contradicted the fact mentioned in the report that he had written to the joint secretary concerned after he came to know about the conversation.

In other words, neither Sinha nor Kumar have contradicted the two primary points made in the report in The Hindu — first, that the PMO had involved itself in the Rafale negotiations; and, second, that it did so without informing the defence ministry or the negotiating team. Its interference was by stealth; it went behind the backs of both the defence ministry and the negotiating team.

Let's now get to the flimsy rebuttal incumbent Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman came up with both in the Lok Sabha and outside. She, other BJP leaders and members of the government have made four basic points — first, that the Opposition is "flogging a dead horse", though how and when the equine died has not been specified; second, that the PMO had been making periodic enquiries about the negotiations, which cannot be construed as "interference"; third, the report in The Hindu was slanted because it did not print Parrikar's response to Kumar's concerns; fourth, those who are "flogging the dead horse" are damaging the country.

Let's begin with the role of the PMO. Where should it have started if it had only wanted to make periodic enquiries about the progress of the negotiations? Logically, one would suppose, with the Indian negotiating team, perhaps by getting in touch with its head, Air Marshal Sinha. Surely, the most obvious way of monitoring the negotiations, or whatever else one wants to call it, would not be through a conversation between a joint secretary in the PMO and an advisor to the French defence ministry. To suggest that that conversation was by way of making "periodic enquiries" is simply surreal. It is surreal because it is a falsehood. For the PMO to agree to a letter of comfort, while the negotiating team was pushing for a sovereign guarantee, cannot be called a "periodic enquiry"; it can only be rightfully called parallel negotiations. Perhaps we need some linguistic reference points.

A related issue here is the one about Parrikar's response to the note. In fact, there are two issues: one being the suggestion that The Hindu had contravened journalistic ethics, and the other that Parrikar's note somehow absolved the PMO. One depends on the other.

What Parrikar wrote was that it "appears" that the PMO and the French president's office were monitoring the progress of the negotiations in the Rafale deal as an outcome of a summit meeting between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the then President of France, Francois Hollande. He went on to say that Kumar's response and the inference made in the defence ministry note that "parallel discussions by the PMO" had "weakened the negotiating position" of the ministry and the negotiating team were an overreaction, and the defence secretary could resolve the matter after consulting with the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister.

What kind of absolution is that? Parrikar's note is a kind of get-out-of-jail response. It ducks the issue by prefacing his sense that Kumar and the defence ministry had overreacted with an "appears-to-be" qualification and then suggests that the matter be resolved, which is a straightforward recognition of the fact that there, indeed, was a matter that needed resolution. Since, Parrikar's response admitted that there was an issue and suggested an anodyne solution, it is fairly clear that The Hindu had breached no incarnation of journalistic ethics by failing to include it in the report.

Finally, we get back to the dead equine that (poor thing) is being flogged, and the connection of this merciless act with the interests of the country. There are all kinds of reasons to believe that the equine has not yet given up the ghost, but let us mention the one referenced in the impugned report. The Union government, in its submissions to the Supreme Court, had said that the negotiations over the purchase of the Rafale aircraft had been conducted by a seven-member team, neglecting to make any mention of the role of the PMO, which was not just "monitoring" the progress of the talks but was actively involved in some aspects of finalising the deal.

Parrikar's note, in fact, confirms this because it takes on board the concerns of the defence ministry, which specifically said that the position taken by Reb was an outcome of discussions between the French side and a joint secretary in the PMO. That is the only possible construal of his suggestion that the defence secretary should resolve the matter in consultation with the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister. In other words, the government submitted a falsehood to the Supreme Court by omission — that is, by not making known the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. That is why the horse is still alive and no amount of equine spin from Sitharaman can kill the beast.

Given the foregoing, Sitharaman's remark about the country being damaged could be construed as banal, had it not pointed to a dangerous idea used by the BJP too often. Whenever the BJP or its government is chastised and finds itself in a hole, it resorts to conflating the party and its governments with the nation, states and the people. The BJP government is not the nation, and exposing its shenanigans in relation to the Rafale deal does not amount to damaging the country. If any damage has been done to India's interests, it has been perpetrated by the BJP and the governments it runs, preeminently the one in Delhi.

Updated Date: Feb 10, 2019 12:51:41 IST