New Delhi: The Defence Ministry had protested against parallel parleys by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) with the French side the Rafale deal, says a report by The Hindu, triggering strong reactions from political parties and experts and bringing Parliament proceedings to a halt on Friday.
According to The Hindu's Friday report on the Rafale fighter jet deal, at the height of the negotiations over the controversial Rafale deal between India and France, the Defence Ministry raised strong objections to “parallel negotiations” conducted by PMO.
The report cited a Defence Ministry note dated November 24, 2015 that brought to the attention of the then Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar, that such parallel discussions by the PMO had “weakened the negotiating position of MoD and Indian Negotiating Team.”
Stating that “we may advise PMO that any Officers who are not part of Indian Negotiating Team may refrain from having parallel parlays [parleys] with the officers of French Government,” it suggested that “in case the PMO is not confident about the outcome of negotiations being carried out by the MoD, a revised modality of negotiations to be led by PMO at appropriate level may be adopted in the case.”
Even though, as maintained by the Government that the negotiations over the Rafale deal were conducted by a seven-member team headed by the Deputy Chief of Air Staff and there was no mention of any role for the PMO in these negotiations, official documents available to The Hindu reveal that the Defence Ministry protested that the position taken by the PMO was “contradictory to the stand taken by MoD and the negotiating team.”
The then Defence Secretary, G. Mohan Kumar, made this official notation in his own hand: “RM may pl. see. It is desirable that such discussions be avoided by the PMO as it undermines our negotiating position seriously”, says the noting, a facsimile of which has been published by the newspaper.
His firm opposition was recorded on November 24, 2015 on a note prepared by S. K. Sharma, Deputy Secretary (Air-II), and endorsed by the Joint Secretary & Acquisition Manager (Air) and the Director General (Acquisition) in the Ministry.
As per the report, “According to the Defence Ministry note, the details of the parallel negotiations conducted by the PMO came to the Ministry’s notice only from a letter of October 23, 2015 from General Stephen Reb, the head of the French Negotiating Team.” The letter “made mention of a telephonic conversation between Shri Jawed Ashraf, Joint Secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office and Mr. Luis Vassy, Diplomatic Adviser to the French Minister of Defence, which took place on 20.10.2015.”
General Reb’s letter was brought to the notice of the PMO by the Defence Ministry and the head of the Indian Negotiating Team, Air Marshal S. B. P. Sinha, AVSM VM, Deputy Chief of Air Staff, had also written to Mr. Ashraf.
In his reply to Air Marshal Sinha on November 11, 2015, Mr. Ashraf “confirmed that he had held discussion with Mr Luis Vassy, Diplomatic Adviser to the French Minister of Defence,” adding that Mr. Vassy “spoke to him on the advice of the French President’s office and the issues referred to General Reb’s letter were discussed.”
The Defence Ministry note also stated, “such parallel negotiations may be detrimental to our interests as the French side may take advantage of same by interpreting such discussions to their benefit and weakening the position taken by Indian Negotiating Team. This has precisely happened in this case.”
The Defence Ministry’s note pointed out that General Reb in his letter had stated that “taking into consideration the outcome of discussions between Diplomatic Adviser to the French Defence Minister and Joint Secretary to PM, no Bank Guarantee is provisioned in the supply protocol and the letter of comfort provides sufficient assurances of the proper implementation of the supply protocol by the industrial suppliers.”
This, the note stated, was “contrary to the position taken by the MoD and conveyed by Indian Negotiating Team that the commercial offer should be preferably backed by Sovereign/Government Guarantee or otherwise by Bank Guarantee.”
It further stated that this was not the only instance of “parallel negotiations” in which the Indian side took contrary positions. It has already been reported that the National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, negotiated with the French side in Paris in January 2016 and as reported by The Hindu, it has access to documentation that confirms this.
Doval’s advice to Parrikar on doing away with a sovereign guarantee or bank guarantee for the Rafale deal was also recorded by the then Defence Minister in a file noting, according to an article written for The Wire by Sudhansu Mohanty, who has worked as Controller General of Defence Accounts and then as Financial Adviser, Defence Services, Doval had no locus to negotiate the Rafale deal.
The article states, “he was not a part of the officially-appointed and legitimately-anointed Contract Negotiation Committee (CNC) under DPP 2013, notwithstanding his high office of National Security Advisor. Nor was he a co-opted member nominated to the CNC (or INT, as christened on official records put out in the media) by the Raksha Mantri (RM), who, given the NSA status, rank and position, wasn’t within his right to do so. The DPP 2013 grants the NSA no role whatsoever in the negotiation and finalisation of defence contracts.”
Uproar in Parliament
The proceedings in Rajya Sabha today were washed out as Opposition members insisted on a discussion on The Hindu's revelation on the Rafale deal after which the House was adjourned till Monday. Earlier in the day, Congress president Rahul Gandhi held a press conference in which he stated that the expose clearly proved that the PM was involved directly in carrying out parallel negotiations.
CPI(M) General Secretary, Sitaram Yechury in a series of tweets said, “Modi has consistently undermined the Air Force & Defence Ministry in the Rafale deal for corruption, to benefit his cronies. His actions have hurt the public exchequer & damaged national security. These facts have been hidden from Supreme Court where a review petition is pending” and “The PM must take responsibility for the loss to the exchequer, violation of procedure to get far fewer fighter jets than what Air Force wanted. All just to help cronies,” he said.
Yechury alleged that the “wires in this scam go straight to the top man”. “For whose benefit was Modi undermining defence ministry & Air Force? Why was IAF’s Deputy Chief forced to write to Modi’s PMO to stop ‘parallel negotiations’ with France?” he asked.
Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman”s suo motu statement came in the Lok Sabha in the wake of protests by the Congress and other Opposition members over The Hindu’s report. She said, “they are flogging a dead horse. Periodical enquiries by the PMO cannot be construed as interference.” She charged the Opposition with playing into the hands of multinational companies and vested interests and not working in the interests of the Indian Air Force.