Arun Jaitley's counter arguments for Rahul Gandhi's Rafale claims were the political salvo NDA govt needed

In his first statement after resuming charge of the Ministry of Finance after recovering from a kidney transplant, Arun Jaitley chose to deliberate on a subject that Congress president Rahul Gandhi believes can help him win the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. In a Facebook blog post, titled "15 Questions that Expose Congress Party's Falsehood on Rafale" published early on Wednesday, as well as in an interview to a news agency later in the day, the finance minister gave the impression that he was now in good health, and that weeks of rest had helped him sharpen what was always his trademark — good research and articulation.

It is unclear whether it was Jaitley's own decision to speak extensively on the Rafale fight jet deal on a day the Pune Police's nationwide crackdown on activists and intellectuals was making headlines, or whether it was a decision made after consultations with the leadership of the ruling dispensation. Either way, it appeared to be part of a well-thought-out strategy to take on Rahul and his new-found political associates — including former finance ministers from Atal Bihari Vajapyee's term, Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie — over the Rafale aircraft deal with the French government.

File image of Rahul Gandhi and Arun Jaitley. PTI

File image of Rahul Gandhi and Arun Jaitley. PTI

Although during the no-confidence motion in Parliament on 20 July, Defence Minister Nirmala Sithraman had responded to Rahul's charges against the Narendra Modi government with regard to this agreement, senior BJP leaders felt that her reply lacked the required political punch even though she gave a strong rebuttal. With his interview to news agency ANI, Jaitley took care of this political aspect, which was crucial to build or counter the public narrative on the Rafale deal.

What was most interesting in Jaitley's offensive against the Congress and its allies was his coinage of the term "career nationalists" for his one-time associates Sinha and Shourie. The two are now among the biggest critics of the Narendra Modi government.

"They haven't looked at the file. You see, those NDA colleagues, if they were in the NDA, would be speaking a different language. Our tragedy in the NDA, partially in the BJP, has been that we have a fair share of career nationalists. They are nationalists and with us as long as it suits their career. Therefore, when they speak a contrarian language, I don't attach much credibility to them," Jaitley told ANI.

The former ministers had recently alleged that the Bofors scam, in which the Congress government under Rajiv Gandhi is accused, paled into insignificance when compared to Rafale. Jaitley said, "Somebody may have been involved as a journalist, but I was involved as a lawyer in the Bofors investigation. So I know more than what the files say."

It would be interesting to see how Sinha and Shourie respond to Jaitley's "career nationalists" charge against them.

His charge against Rahul, too, was no less scathing. On the Congress chief misquoting the price of the fighter jets, Jaitley said it was "as if this was a kindergarten or primary school debate". The Congress is unlikely to take kindly to this statement.

Jaitley's argument — by consequence is the Modi government's argument since he had twice held the defence portfolio in this regime and currently presides over two important ministries — is that since the Congress has a legacy of being involved in corrupt deals, Bofors included, Rahul's strategy was to "make a failed attempt" to portray "everyone" as corrupt while dealing with defence agreements.

What has worked in the government's favour, at least so far, is that the Rafale deal is a government-to-government contract, which does away with the possibility of any third party, private individual, leader or official receiving kickbacks. The finance minister called the Congress's relentless efforts to find the scent of a scam in the Rafale deal something that originates from "lack of education".

"How is it that Rahul Gandhi quoted a price of Rs 700 crore per aircraft in Delhi and Karnataka in April and May this year? In Parliament, he reduced it to Rs 520 crore per aircraft; in Raipur he increased it to Rs 540 crore; in Jaipur he used two figures — Rs 520 crore and Rs 540 crore — in the same speech. In Hyderabad, he invented a new price of Rs 526 crore. Truth has only one version, but falsehood has many. Are these allegations being made without any familiarity with the facts of the Rafale purchase?" Jaitley asked.

He spoke about the negotiations but steered clear of the price at which the Centre procured the Rafale jets, which the NDA government has maintained cannot be divulged as per a secrecy clause in the contract. Jaitley said that the UPA's negotiations with France in 2007 provided for a price escalation till the time the jets were delivered. Besides the price hike, factors such as India-specific adaptations, weaponry and rupee-euro currency variations were also to be taken into account.

Therefore, the Modi government claims that the NDA has negotiated a 9 percent cheaper basic price of the aircraft. Also, the UPA's price — mentioned in the 2007 L1 offer — would have been at least 20 percent higher than the more favourable price negotiated by the NDA after the add-ons, such as India-specific adaptations and weaponry, were installed.

The Centre's counter against the Congress' charges is that the UPA government had spelled out its key defence requirements for 10 years, and after selecting the Rafale and holding negotiations at various levels for five years from 2007 to 2012, it abandoned the deal. Therefore, its policy paralysis was seriously compromised on India's defence needs and national security, Jaitley said.

The finance minister also deflected questions on the controversy over private sector Indian offset suppliers, saying this was in sync with the policy framed by the UPA government, which required any Original Equipment Manufacturer to select any number of Indian partners from both the private and public sector for offset supplies.

To Rahul's allegations that Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) was deliberately kept away from the deal because the NDA government wanted to favour a private party, Jaitley asserted that there was correspondence between HAL and the concerned departments for long, and the UPA government had developed serious doubts about whether that public sector firm could manufacture Rafale jets in India.

It was also time for the government to set the record straight on another charge Rahul made — that the Rafale deal was signed as per the prime minister's whims and not vetted through official channels. Jaitley said that the Price Negotiation Committee and Contract Negotiation Committee had deliberated over it for 14 months before finalising the deal, after which the Cabinet Committee on Security approved it.

A few in the BJP may now wonder whether the government could have given such a detailed response to Rahul's allegations earlier, and whether it had deliberately waited for Jaitley to recover and lead the government's response.

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Updated Date: Aug 29, 2018 23:09:11 IST

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